Today, more electrical engineers are at work than ever before. Indeed, it is likely that more people are now employed as electrical engineers than the total of all who worked as electrical engineers prior to the mid-twentieth century. The great increase in the number of electrical engineers along with ongoing developments in technology, organization, and government have markedly changed the nature of engineering. Today's engineer belongs to a profession that includes Villard de Honnecourt, Han Gonglian, Leonardo da Vinci, John Smeaton, and all the other great engineers, but there is much that is different about engineering today (Mcllwee and Robinson, 23). This paper considers the benefits of being an electrical engineer in the contemporary world, professional and social status of electrical engineers, and some of the challenges they face.
What are the direct benefits of becoming an electrical engineer? Can people of this profession claim the same occupational status as doctors and lawyers, or is it more appropriate to group them with social workers, nurses, schoolteachers and other occupations whose aspirations for professional status are yet to be realized? The issue is not simply one of terminology. Professions differ from other occupations in a number of significant ways; in particular, high occupational status has "set professionals apart from other workers" (McMahon, 89-93). The effort to establish electrical engineering as a profession encompasses most of the major issues surrounding the working life of today's engineers.
In the modern world, a person's occupation is the most important determinant of his or her place in society. An occupation is what sociologists call an "achieved status," a position one attains through merit and accomplishment (Whitaker, 56). Moreover, the attainment of an achieved status may allow for upward social mobility, the process through which individuals attain statuses higher than the ones held by their parents.
The participation of electrical engineers in management has been of crucial importance in defining the careers of individual engineers and the status of engineering in general. At the same time, however, the eagerness of many electrical engineers to leave their field in order to join the ranks of management seems to indicate that electrical engineering has not achieved an occupational status on a par with the traditional professions (Whitaker, 56). Yet electrical engineers generally enjoy relatively high incomes and occupational status and, thus, their position as true professionals is well recognized.
Electrical engineering shares a number of characteristics with established professions, most notably rigorous training and the application of theoretically grounded expertise. Professions distinguish themselves through their practitioners' knowledge and application of specialized information. Some electrical engineering specialties owe their very existence to their ability to define a knowledge base unique to themselves.
Electrical engineering, in fact, emerged as a distinct segment of engineering through a conscious effort to generate and apply theories, concepts, and procedures that set it apart from, civil, chemistry, and mechanical engineering. By using unit operations as the key conceptual elements of electrical engineering, advocates of this emerging specialty were able to defend it against rival claimants (Mcllwee and Robinson, 23, 45-47). This new sphere of knowledge was oriented at least as much to professional needs as to technical ones. The essential components of unit operations are primarily physical rather than mechanical processes. The important thing was the integration of these processes through the efforts of electrical engineers, thereby reserving for practitioners of this specialty a distinct niche in industry and research.
Still, the use of specialized, scientifically based knowledge does not in itself insure professional status for electrical engineers. As a number of students of the professions have pointed out, the crucial element of any true profession is the ability of its members to govern themselves and exercise a significant amount of on-the-job discretion. From this perspective, professional status rests on the ability of the membership to separate themselves from outside sources of control.
According to these criteria, electrical engineering still has not established itself as a profession of the traditional sort. As an editorial in a journal published by the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers complained in 1969, the engineer's lack of "freedom of action" was the main reason that "engineering is not universally regarded as a profession" (Qtd in McMahon, 38).
There is no escaping the fact that the electrical engineer's desire for autonomy is compromised by the work environment of engineering. Engineering is rarely done as a solo activity. Rather, it has flourished as an occupation closely tied to the development of large organizations; the large firm or government agency is the typical employer of engineers. Under these circumstances individual electrical engineers have been able to pursue remunerative and often intellectually challenging careers, but they have not enjoyed an equal measure of on-the-job autonomy. Engineering faces an inevitable conflict between the professional's desire for independence and the requirement of loyalty to the organization.
Yet, whatever the perceived difficulties, the distinctive knowledge acquired and used by electrical engineers is at least potentially a solid source of professional status. A sizable amount of engineering practice is based on science, which gives electrical engineering an automatic claim to the validity of its knowledge base; from at least the nineteenth century, science has been seen as an objective and appropriate basis for authority in a democratic society. Modern society accords great prestige to science, and as a result, occupations that appear to be rooted in scientific knowledge have a strong claim to professional status.