Professional antithesis

Is there a conflict between engineering education and the expectations of the business world? As we observe in real time the development of younger engineers in the workplace, it is difficult to perceive the bigger picture that evolves over several years. However, as we march along through the ups and downs, it pays to take a step out of line to assess our progress. As I’ve mentioned before, such an assessment often benefits from the perspectives of other industries.

This month’s “second opinion” comes from a Harvard Business Review article by Richard Barker, a Cambridge University business professor, addressing the question of whether business management should be categorized as a “profession.” Though tangential to the issues facing engineering — a long-acknowledged profession — it still raises some important questions that we will face as we continue developing our educational resources and industry leaders.

The article makes the case that general business management is not a profession in the traditional sense of doctors, lawyers, and engineers providing technical expertise to a trusting public. Typically, we depend on our respective professional organizations and government licensure to maintain minimum standards of competency. Barker points out that, without such a mechanism, there would be no market (at least not a very large one) for our services, since the public has no independent means of determining the quality of our expertise. There are only limited equivalents in the business world and no “certification” of general management skills, which precludes the professional designation.

What does this have to do with engineering? In expanding our Body of Knowledge, we have recognized that technical expertise alone is not sufficient to be considered a true professional. While Barker would likely agree, he notes that the soft skills necessary for good management are particularly incompatible with our traditional methods of imparting technical knowledge, from university admissions policies to evaluation of skills. Indeed, he says, “An academic grading system cannot reliably predict managerial ability.” Further, we would probably all agree that it is possible to learn these skills, but that doesn’t imply that they are “taught” as much as they are collaboratively developed in group settings with other students.

In expressing these realities of business management education and practice, Barker highlights some of the difficulties of incorporating them into a technical degree like engineering. Specifically, he notes the difference between teaching easily quantifiable subjects such as finance, accounting, or engineering versus assessing an individual’s ability to be “more thoughtful, more aware, more sensitive, more flexible, and more adaptive” to the varied business environment. It is these latter qualities that are most valued by business leaders – if not by your peers, at least by your clients.

When viewing our engineering educational methods through the lens of business management attributes, it is no wonder that we struggle to develop the right mix of technical expertise and leadership skill. Though both can result from proper education, that education is unlikely to be limited to a bachelor’s degree, or even to the extra master’s coursework now being considered as a professional engineer prerequisite. Barker would likely approve of those states that require periodic professional development hours, saying, “business education is best delivered in doses throughout a career, rather than in a single shot at the beginning.”

Whether we are considering formal education or workforce development on the job, we should remember that the desired management attributes are not simply supplements to the core technical expertise. They do not consist of additional coursework, but rather are the product of a significantly different mindset derived from breadth of experience, not depth of knowledge. Barker sums it up well by illustrating the contrast: “In general, the professional is an expert, whereas the manager is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none — the antithesis of the professional.” Engineers benefit from our designation as professionals, but still must cultivate qualities that seem counter to our efforts to always have the right answer.

Jason Burke, P.E., is a project manager in Billings, Montana. Find additional information at

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Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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