Thursday, March 5, 2015

Professionalization

Summer 2009, as part of my Master's program, I took a class on Engineering and Globalization. Those who know me or have followed my blog over the years should recognize this as a natural extension of my interest in international affairs and technology.


The year that I took the course, one of the textbooks discussed the education of engineers. In particular, there was a suggestion that, similar to the M.D. or J.D., engineering should move up to a master's level program. The idea was that so many topics are necessary in this global world, that engineers would benefit from having a more generalized undergraduate degree, and then specialized training later.


I had been aware that in the UK, a Chartered Engineer typically requires a Master of Engineering degree. In the U.S., the equivalent Professional Engineer designation currently requires a 4-year degree in engineering from an accredited program, plus experience and tests.

(Standard Disclaimer for discussing the P.E.: I am not currently a Professional Engineer, and nothing in this post should construe that I am one. To date, I have worked under the Industrial Exemption.  If at any future date this should change, I will be sure to update my "About Me" page accordingly.)

One thing we learn in Engineering, is that there are always tradeoffs. In the United States, engineering remains one of the few bachelor's degree programs that can earn a decent income. Many other professions require a graduate level degree... which requires additional time in school, and often additional money to pay for the degree.

Note: it is possible to get fellowships and assistant-ships sufficient to pay one for attending graduate school, but one has to know how and where to look for those. When I was an undergraduate student, I knew that a graduate assistantship or Resident Advisor position could provide income. I didn't know that one might get a full ride.

If I didn't know that one could be paid to go to graduate school full-time, and both of my parents have graduate degrees... then a first-generation college student is going to need good connections and/or a good mentor to navigate this. That, or they pay the price in additional student loans.

I find myself with dual vision looking at these issues. I recognize the value that education and licensure bring to a profession... while also understanding that education and licensure are gate-keepers, creating barriers against class mobility and diversity.

This is where history comes into play.  Engineering used to be something one could learn through apprenticeship and experience, but this is less common today. Similarly, law and medicine have had eras of less formal training... consider Abraham Lincoln, studying law alone.

Women's studies consider both the access issues mentioned above, and also who is impacted by professionalization. In particular, the professionalization of medicine historically had a severe negative impact on women's health, as doctors replaced midwives... in some times and places even passing laws to ban the practice all together, costing the midwives (typically women) their careers, and also, historically, spreading infections to their patients.

We need to be careful that professionalizing engineering does not cause further indirect effects such as deadly airbags.