Are you proud of the work you do? Does John Q. Public really know how important your job is to his daily existence?
In the October 2004 issue of PUBLIC WORKS magazine, editor in chief Bill Palmer touched upon the changing roles of engineers in the public works department (“People Engineering,” page 7). Several words were thrown about that make many engineers cringe—words like managing, leading, and ... politics (ewww!).
This knee-jerk reaction must change if our business is to thrive. All of us in public works, not just engineers, must start selling ourselves and our profession to the public before we truly are an afterthought.
Many current public works directors are engineers. But are they leaders? As department heads, for the most part, yes. As city officials? Not likely. From my engineering education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and my work experience since 1991, I can say with absolute certainty that we engineers are not the most extroverted bunch. No surprise to anyone, I'm sure. My parents were shocked when I decided to pursue engineering as a career. As an outgoing, outspoken person, they “didn't think I was the type who would enjoy it.”
Add to that an engineering career in the public sector where our work takes a back seat to many other higher profile (read, “more vote-getting”) municipal services, and sometimes I find myself agreeing with them. But you and I can increase our level of involvement, and we can take steps to train and recruit our future leaders. Selling our profession and the public works department requires being outwardly passionate. I know that is not our MO—to try and make people take notice of us might cause them to actually ... take notice of us! Nothing good could come of that in the public works world, right?
That said, certainly this attitude and public perception didn't suddenly show up. In my opinion, the “introverted, nerdy” persona associated with engineers was even more prevalent decades ago. Public works departments were not under the microscope like they are today. Growing up, I remember engineers as the guys in short-sleeved white shirts, pocket protectors, too-short black ties, and the ever-present large black-rimmed glasses. Yet, any senior engineer I talk to remembers times when we were in the same professional strata as doctors and lawyers! (I know, today you can go either way with the legal profession.)
Well, what happened? What caused the public to begin seeing engineering and public works as services solely to be picked on for what goes wrong as opposed to being appreciated and respected for their contributions to society?
In Mr. Palmer's column, he says we engineers would rather “...retreat into the relative safety of our equations and calculations and drawings,” that we “...are forced into roles like media spokesperson, politician, manager, or ombudsman...” and “In the good old days ... an engineer could complete his drawings and just hand them over the side of his cubicle without ever talking to anyone.” Needless to say, these are not the characteristics of society's leaders nor those that can sell our profession to the public.
I absolutely share the concern with the current lack of marketing of and caring for our profession and the conclusion that far too few engineers have the “people engineering” skills necessary to successfully lead in a political or other public forum. Mr. Palmer said, “This new role is indeed more exciting...” referring to duties outside the technical realm.
I agree with him wholeheartedly. How we are to prepare ourselves and our future public works leaders for this new role and re-establish our rightful place in society should be given at least the same amount of attention as any educational or licensing requirement. The long-term health of the public works profession depends on addressing this issue.
I am proud of the work I do, and I'm working on Mr. Public. Are you?
— Ken Berkman, P.E., is the city engineer for the city of Agoura Hills, Calif.