April 20, 2007

Professional Closure

Writing about Ban Private Schools from flipthelid.co.uk

Comment 62 included:

In what way to doctors, lawyers and accountants have monopolies that engineers don’t?

Most members of the Bar Council, the Law Society and (I think) the Institute of Chartered Accountants spend most *of their working time on tasks where their professional body has a monopoly.

This is very different from the experience of members of the Institution of Civil Engineers the Institution of Mechanical Engineers or the Institution of Engineering and Technology

I was an associate member of the Institution of Electrical Engineering (predecessor to the IET), I couldn’t be bothered to apply for full membership and after I few years I just left. It didn’t make any difference whether I was a member or not.

A couple of examples to illustrate how a professional institution can raise the income of its members:

  • Restrict the supply of labour. Raise the level of educational qualification and experience needed for entry. This has a side effect of raising the status of the profession, by putting clear demarcations between members of the profession and less skilled people and between difference grades within the profession.
  • Stimulate the demand for labour. Claim that many tasks may only be done by your members and resist “deskilling”. Deskilling is a term used to describe the process whereby employers split a job (previous done by highly skilled people) into two parts, that which really needs a high level of skill, and the rest which can be performed by cheaper labour. By deskilling a job, the demand for high-level skills is reduced.

So an explanation for engineers being paid a lot less than lawyers doesn’t need to include such nebulous things as culture or status.

This doesn’t mean that engineers can’t get get good money, more that they have to become managers if they want to prosper. Bill Gates provides an extreme example. It’s significant that his branch of engineering is characterised by fast changing technology. I suspect that while a top manager needs no more than A-level physics to grasp the engineering issues associated with say, a major civil engineering project, keeping up-to-date with the latest software concepts might well be a far more challenging task.

Oh yeah it’s just another example where the Free Market fairy story doesn’t match reality


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  1. But professional engineers do have a monopoly on their area – at least in my line of work (high level and in-depth engineering/technical consultancy). Regardless of whether institutions have a specific written monopoly on an engineering discipline, it requires degree level and above competency in a specific technical skill to practice it professionally. No-one would employ anyone but a competent engineer to design a car for them, or to design and build a power station, etc etc. What engineers do is essential to modern society, and the equipment we design needs to be reliable, cost-effective, and above all safe. No-one but a professional, highly qualified engineer could meet those requirements in detailed technical work, and therefore by default I fail to see how we don’t have a monopoly. We just aren’t recognised as being as qualified as, say, a lawyer, despite engineering institution’s minimum requirement for a four year degree, a further four years of professional experience and then recommendation followed by an interview and presentation of evidence that you have met the requirements for registration before becoming a chartered engineer. Yet I reckon I could get a lot further defending myself in court from reading a few law textbooks than a lawyer could with using a finite element code and the user guide…

    20 May 2007, 11:44

  2. The skill of engineers is not in question, their collective power and influence is.

    And power and influence are important in determining status and rewards.

    20 May 2007, 16:34

  3. Although it must be added that various occupations in which the most talented can get large rewards without, apparently, the help of strong professional organisations. Footballers, actors & musicians spring to mind.

    21 May 2007, 09:16

  4. So what you are essentially saying is that the professional engineering institutions have not got comparable power to those representing other professions, and thus we are comparatively undervalued? Both your bullet points are already the case – professional engineering institutions already have high standards for membership, and as I pointed out in my first post chartered engineers are the only group qualified to deal with their technical areas of expertise. Which leaves us where in the negotiating stakes? As a profession we don’t exactly have the militancy of a union, so short of drumming it into the world how important our work is and raising our status (which is as much about improving our own perception of self-worth as anything else) I don’t see where we can go.

    21 May 2007, 12:53

  5. I don’t see the engineering institutions becoming more powerful.

    However the sharp decline in UK manufacturing employment over the past decades will lead to the disapperance of the notion that an “engineer” is someone whose main task is the management of a lot of unskilled or semi-skilled engineering workers.

    Apart from their technical skills, professional engineers may well find themsleves being judged according to their ability to function effectively in multi-disciplinary teams. To help manage relationships with suppliers and customers as well.

    A tip – when working with lawyers don’t say you could do their job just as good as they can just by reading a few law textbooks.

    21 May 2007, 15:31

  6. Hehe I said I could get a lot further than they could with my job, not that I could do their job as well as them ;-) And even I’m not quite that tactless.

    Engineers have had to function in multi-disciplinary teams for quite some time now, and interfacing with the outside world is a key part to many engineer’s jobs. It doesn’t appear to have helped us in the status stakes.

    21 May 2007, 19:56


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