When is an Engineer not an Engineer: A Study of Engineering Practice?

My Christmas reading this winter was Trevelyan’s study of engineering practice in Pakistan and Australia (Trevelyan, 2010).  At the root of this study is the question: “What is the nature of engineering work, and what are engineers’ perceptions of their work?” Trevelyan’s findings suggest that engineers, both novice and experienced, hold a narrow view of what they consider to be appropriate engineering work. This view is shaped at university, and it is largely at variance with the bulk of engineering work carried out in practice.

Trevelyan analysed the practice of both experienced and recently graduated novice engineers, and, in line with previous studies, he found that engineers spend around 60% of their working time communicating with other staff. This places social interaction at the heart of engineering practice. The engineers in the study do not see it as such, and instead, they believe that in their daily work practice, they “hardly do any engineering” at all. When asked to define engineering work, most of the engineers believed that engineering involves doing “calculations, design-work and technical stuff”.

Both the novice and experienced engineers use a similar binary divide to categorise their work. In both their eyes engineering practice comprises mainly solitary technical work, which they value highly, and mainly mundane work involving communicating and collaborating with other people, which they find unfulfilling.

In fact, most engineers assigned to non-design work actually believe that they are not worthy of the title “Engineer”. For example, a novice QA engineer said of himself: “I am not an engineer, I don’t work in engineering.”  Similarly, an experienced software engineer said of himself: “I’m not an engineer any longer, I am a project manager for my company. I don’t write code and I don’t design software anymore.” When asked to define an engineer, the novice engineer believes that engineers are those who do the “hard core design and modelling which I don’t do.” Similarly the experienced software engineer believes that “you lose the respect of a lot of people who think that you’re an engineer if you are seen not to be writing code or doing any software engineering.”

The study also indicates that even senior management share similar beliefs on who is and who is not an engineer. For example an engineering manager at a mining and refining company that employs a wide variety of people with engineering skills had this to say: “We only have 55 engineers in this company.  … They do analysis for us.” However, in spite of this, he readily acknowledges all the other people who needed engineering training and experience to effectively do their work. This includes production supervisors, managers, production schedulers, the quality assurance team, and maintenance leads. Consequently, the engineering manager effectively relegated all the technical work that is non-analysis or non-design to an inferior status, even though it is critical to the whole engineering process.

This study therefore suggests that engineering practice is a socially enacted practice that is more than technical problem solving and design. However, practising engineers tend to frame their identity only in terms of problem solving and design. This identity is consistent with how engineering is defined in university, and is at variance with actual engineering practice. It is therefore apparent that the relationship between engineering practice and education needs to be revisited.

References

Trevelyan, James (2010) ‘Reconstructing engineering from practice’, Engineering Studies, vol. 2, issue 3, pp. 175 – 195.

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