Guess What? In a Sense, Europe Has Already ‘Raised the Bar’

June 22, 2012

London Underground tourAs I write this, Iai??i??m in Dusseldorf, Germany, about to wrap up a series of fascinating, enlightening meetings with our engineering peers in Europe. Executive Director Pat Natale and I have been exposed to a lot of interesting progress by civil engineers here, even if the bad economy hitting Europe dominates the headlines at home. We have been flattered by our reception. Everywhere we go, ASCE is held in the highest regard.

In meetings with leaders of engineering associations in Britain, France, Norway, and Germany, we have found a lot of overlap on approaches to the challenges of infrastructure investment, adoption of sustainable practices, and enhancing educational standards for entry into professional practice ai??i?? the latter very similar to the ASCE key initiative we call Raise the Bar.

Of the insights gained on this trip, one of the most important long-term will be in helping us make the case for Raising the Bar in the U.S.

And that is this: What we are seeking to achieve ai??i?? making a masterai??i??s degree or equivalent a requirement to become a licensed professional engineer in the future ai??i?? is something that is already in place in leading European countries.

The level of education required of young engineers entering private practice is outstripping that required of their young U.S. counterparts. To remain competitive, we as engineers need a future educational standard that is at least on par with our global peers, one that equips future PEs to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

What do you think about the European educational standard, how ours measures up, and the need to compete in a global economy by Raising the Bar?

Iai??i??ll detail other facets of our trip in future blog entries, in my Presidentai??i??s Note in Civil Engineering, in ASCE News and other ASCE outlets.

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  • Alot of interesting comments have been posted one this subject. I’ll offer a few of my own observations.
    My experience is different that some of the others written about here. In general, the engineers who have worked with me who have Master’s Degrees have been better thinkers, and better performers. Of course, nothing is universal, but that has been my experience. I believe the reason for that is this: As many have noted here, a Bachelor’s Degree is the foundational degree in engineering; we learn theory and basic material there. In the last 30 years, as the degree has been trimmed from 140 to 128 semester hours (national average), the design courses have been largely removed. Those are the courses where we learn to apply the foundational priniciples, and they are mostly gone. The Master’s Degree has become the place where we learn to apply knowledge, where we think out of the box more, and (as one study suggests) where we learn the discipline of thinking for ourselves. Sure, some focus on research in the Master’s Degree – but that just forces us to analyze, create, and get away from the routine. It is a learning test bed.
    We clearly need to continually improve education at all levels. But, simply putting the lost content back into the BS isn’t feasible; the reduction from 140 to 128 hours is a result of legislative funding pressures, not engineering decisions, and the reality is that this can’t be reversed.
    Our current students aren’t deterred by this challenge. About 40% of civil engineers get Master’s Degrees. But it is broader than that. My children have pursued graduate degrees in engineering, business, education, medicine, and social work. Not once did they look at this as an unecessary or excessive cost, they viewed it as a necessary investment. Motivated students today want to be prepared to practice at a professional level, and are willing to make the investment – even if the salaries aren’t great. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have accountants, social workers, physical therapists, lawyers, pharmacists, etc – all which require graduate education. When the accountants changed the law to require an additional 30 hours of education to become a CPA, studies document that students were not deterred – the same number of CPAs resulted. And, their test scores on the CPA exam went up considerably, so they were better prepared.
    All of that said, the bottom line is, this isn’t about us, or about today’s graduates. This is about the engineers of the future. Just think about what we didn’t know 30 years ago, about all of the advances that have come around since the 1980s. I started college with a slide rule. The engineer of the future needs a much larger “baseline” education. There is so much more to know just to get started.
    The time is now to Raise the Bar for future engineers.

  • Quite frankly, I don’t see how an additional year of education on the front end of one’s career is that beneficial. Given today’s real world complexities, the rapid growth in technology, increasing specialization, etc., the emphasis should be more on continuing education for one’s professional career. Which is what we all are doing already to keep ourselves relevant. A career in engineering is a life long process. The undergraduate programs need to be monitored to make sure that the current graduates have the necessary tools to move forward in such an environment.

  • Cynthia G. as well as other commenters, Ginger, Richard H, Richard S and Mark K, are correct in questioning the need for a masters or equivalent (MOE) to become a PE or, for that matter to enter the engineering profession. They are correct in questioning whether it is a realistic, useful and cost effective requirement for engineering graduates across the board. This is not to say that advanced engineering/science/management courses and continuing education are not appropriate for some engineering professionals.

    The NCEES initiative (driven by ASCE and NSPE) to use qualification as a PE to drive the goal of making the MS the first professional degree misses the point that the PE is a legal requirement to assure a minimum level of competence for projects that impact public safety, but the licensed PE is not the only person who is capable of professional practice in engineering.

    I would urge Cynthia and others responding to the Presiden’t’s blog to go to the website for some other views on MOE.

  • I am getting more and more leary of the push for master’s degrees…purely out of lack of trust of our current ( and the EU’s) education politics. I think a few people touched on the real issue… focus in the earlier schooling for the basics… and teaching our kids to think.
    I have had both domestic and foreign graduates work for me over 20 years… honestly the foreign graduates (some with doctorates) couldn’t think. They also didn’t know how to clean up after themselves or organize their desk! (they had grown up with maids).

    I mentor at my alma mater and see a bigger need and that is growing: 1) How to teach the next generation to really problem solve and to look beyond what is the glamorous fix 2) how to work with a generation of kids who were told to go to college but might really have been better directed to a trade school 3) how to work with a generation who all about immediate gratification 4) how to work with a generation that doesn’t buy into the work-a-holic” life that many engineers take on, and lastly 5) how to do we get engineers to be more active in politics so that we have a bigger impact on the fiscal side.

    Lance H really touched on it… academia doesn’t see what is really going on and private industry needs to get more engaged to make the change happen.

    Great blog!

  • President Herrmann,

    The recent posts on this BLOG have provided a lot of interesting and thought provoking comments. I would like to briefly comment on some of the items listed.

    Most other professions over the years have increased the education necessary to perform. Engineering instead has significantly decreased the education required to be an engineer. During the past few decades the education requirement to obtain a BSCE has been reduced by over one semester’s worth of technical courses. To make matters worse much of this education time has been lost to learning how to manipulate computer software. As Don Richards said the students do not adequately understand the underlying physics. It is true that computers can manipulate data fast, but if one does not understand what it is doing, going fast may not be right.

    There were several comments about the extra costs of obtaining a master’s degree. If one considerer’s university costs, it is obvious they have gone up much faster than inflation. However, the costs and quality (adequacy) of the education are separate issues and must be analyzed and corrected separately. Even if the costs were zero, the BSCE does not adequately prepare one to be an engineer. There remains a significant lack of problem solving skills, lack of creative thinking ability, lack of leadership and management ability and lack of communication ability. Perhaps the current education model needs some tweaking as it assumes one can teach engineering without having practical engineering experience. No other profession or trade makes this assumption!!! Just because some graduates with a BSCE get good paying jobs, does not necessarily mean they are adequately prepared to be an engineer.

    The definition of engineering is the “application of science and mathematics to projects for the benefit of society”. How can one adequately teach this application having no experience in the application process? We need to better include the professional, leadership and communication component of the engineering education process.

    One comment made was that an MBA is a better option than an advanced engineering degree. Whether or not this is true would depend on one’s career objectives. A better option than either a technical advanced engineering degree or an MBA is a Professional Engineering Master’s degree with a strong emphasis in leadership and communication as described in a paper “Developing Engineering Leaders” which will be published is the ASCE LME Journal, July 2012 edition. This PEM also implements all the outcomes of the ASCE Body of Knowledge, second edition. All other advanced CE degrees should be based on this professional base. North Dakota State University plans to implement this PEM in the near future. If anyone is interested in this paper, send me your address and I will send you a copy.

    Merlin Kirschenman

  • While obtaining a Master’s degree has benefit for some professional engineers, please explain how a Master’s will aid in designing a better sidewalk, street resurfacing, parking lot or residential development. I agree with many of those proceeding me in that it will only drive up the cost of design to clients in both the public and private sectors, and not necessarily improve the quality of the project.

    One area that could be enhanced is to NOT allow students to test out of the non-technical elective classes. Civil Engineers need Sociology and Political Science knowledge, as our work is subject to debate by the public and government. Understanding how government works, is essential to civil engineers, even those in private sector whose projects are subject to review and approval by public agencies. In my experience, these classes enhance the civil engineering ciriculum, and at large universities, Political Science for Engineeers should be developed.

  • You comment on a Masters or “equivalent”. I believe the problem is much deeper. The basic problem solving skills of even those with Masters isn’t matching up. When I came out with my BS, I was expected to be able to do the work with minimal training. I finished my MS while working full time (as an engineer). The problem I see is rules governing what is required to graduate. I remember that we were required to take classes that prepared us for all sections on the FE exam and a very heavy emphasis on not only “How” but “Why” things work the way they do.

    Now, I am frustrated with our young engineers who don’t recognize that those text books are the best reference material they can get for the real world. They seem to think that by selling them they will remember everything that was taught in a class. As a result, the graduate, come to work, and expect the employer to provide them all the references and re-training (associated with a book you have never seen) to re-teach them how to do the work. It is very frustrating.

    Even more so, when I talk to the University Professors at schools I interact with, they believe it is industry’s job to provide the “on the job” training to help them do the work. The gap between academia and the profession is growing larger and larger. They don’t understand the needs of the industry, the demands of the business side of the profession, or the need for engineers that produce from the time they come to work.

    Likewise, I see a gap in our understanding of what is driving the academic side where tenure has little to nothing to do with teaching and is fully dependent upon published and funded research. As the years go on, It appears that academia is more about business than teaching, particularly the undergraduate, classes.

    I am not seeing that those with an MS consisting of just more classes and a report prepares them any better than the BS. The problem is much deeper. Academia’s goals and objectives are not necessarily compatible with the needs of the industry.

  • My children and their peers graduating with engineering degrees (civil, mechanical, electrical) are getting annual salaries in excess of $80,000 per year plus one time sign on bonuses as high as $20,000. Where I see engineers falling behind is in the mid career progression into the business side of the business. It is not that those in our profession are not smart enough it is just that many don’t like the business side of things and are happier in a career track with a more technical focus.

  • I think when ASCE is willing to fight for higher salaries for engineers who will then be attracted to the field then we can raise the bar. Until then engineering will continue to be a “priestly” calling that will attract fewer as the bar is raised.

  • And how are students suppose to pay for the additional costs to obtain a master’s degree? Currently, students are burdened with massive debt just to get their bachelor’s degree. Given the choice, as an engineering manager, I’d rather have provide 2 years of real world experience and training on top of a bachelor’s degree than hire somebody with a master’s degree. In the US, we already are not graduating enough engineers to meet the demand and adding a master’s degree requirement for licensing would make that gap worse.

  • I employ engineers on projects and in plants around the world and US engineers are definitely not at a disadvantage when compared to their foreign educated peers. This is particularly true in areas such as problem solving and innovation where US engineers are sought out for their creativity. I am particularly disappointed by the lack of prefessional standards in the EU where meaningful requirements for professional engineering licensure are consdiered a restraint of trade leading to widespread practive of engineering by incompetents. I also have three children who have attended US universities and received BS degrees in engineering finding immediate employment as engineers at high rates of pay. If you are encountering graduates who do not understand basic topics like electrical circuits then maybe you are recruiting at the wrong university. At the same time, I don’t think the professional suitability of engineering graduates is enhanced by the requirement to take classes like kinesiology. Everyone needs exercise, but not everything a person needs should be in their university curriculum. Finally, there is always room for improvement and we should work to raise the bar in our profession, but taking five years to confer the knowledge formely communicated in four years does not sound like progress. And when the dollars are considered, the exponential growth in tuition makes another year of college even less attractive.

    • That’s right Sir, all we need to do is to have a quality education, maybe some revision of the curriculum rather than extending more to another year. Its really a great burden to parents if that will be the case.

    • Here, here! My husband and I are both engineers and there would be no use to us in the work we do to have a Masters degree IN Engineering! Masters of Business Admin yes, but we learned more than enough in our 4 years of schooling and both have passed our Professional Engineering exam as well on the first try…we are both sought out to help with many projects and were at the fore front of the LEED movement. I have been teaching Physics and the amount of material that they try to put in front of these kids (most of whom will never go on to further their education in physics/engineering/math/etc…) We NEVER had this many topics shown to us in Physics in ONE year!!! The focus back in the late 80’s when we both graduated was on LEARNING how to think…we now know that if we research, think logically and use common sense when solving any problems we can figure out most things! Kids today are so stuck on standardized testing that i fear that they lose the love of learning!!! Who created this ‘Raising the bar’ as it doesn’t sound like people that actually work in the civil engineering field!

      • Just read the next comment about cost…and wonder…IF civil engineering students now have to go back for their masters, there may be less willing to then pursue this field as the pay may not equal what they are putting in. Is this what the raise the bar program will do…less civil engineers in the world so those that finish will then get higher pay? hmmm

        • This issue raises several valid points on both sides of the topic. As a Professional Engineer through an ASCE and experience that has not completed a BSCE, although I have completed a significant segment of the core coursework, have a unique perspective on the topic. I began working within the engineering industry concurrently with seeking my engineering education on a part time basis. In my opinion the education components primary purpose is to train a student to problem solve using engineering methodology and units and to confirm that a candidate has the ability to understand core engineering principals; however, the emphasis is placed on memorization and going through the topic rather than gaining understanding. Once a student graduates they receive the training to be an engineer, to understand the responsibility to society as an engineer, and develop a respect for the engineering profession. In order to raise the bar the period of training/ experience should be increased not necessarily the level of initial education.

  • While living and working on Terceira Island – Azores in the mid/late 1980s, it was my experience, most of my Portuguese professional civil engineering colleagues in both private and public practice completed educational requirements greater than the 1999 Bologna Declaration. These colleagues were very proud of their educational accomplishments and appreciative of the time it took to achieve them. Many were amazed at how little time it took to achieve such distinction in the US. Especially those colleagues who worked at the National Civil Engineering Laboratory in Lisbon. In the December of 1986, Capt.(Ret.) David Jones, CEC-USN and I had the privilege of being a couple of the few Americans, to this date, invited to visit and tour this prestigious Portuguese civil engineering institution. We learned a lot from our European colleagues during our two day visit and discussions. For one, they have many more centuries of lessons learned. I certainly relish one the few periods in my professional career where I was formally addressed as an engineer, in terms of respect.

    The US civil engineering profession can no longer delay the enviable. To do so only puts our succeeding generations further behind the competition in the global race for achieving the role of the civil engineering profession in the future.

  • I think it goes back further to high school or earlier, not just the BS education, when many high school graduates can’t even read beyond 4th grade level. Also, university education now concentrates on learning computer manipulation, not basic understanding of the physics behind the software development. Net result, they can’t solve the problem if they don’t understand what the problem is.

  • As American universities cut back on educational requirements for a BSCE, we now have graduates expecting to be hired to benefit us who don’t know how to close a traverse, if tey even know what one is. They no longer have the basic understanding of property law that is necessary for much civil work that affects private property.
    The new graduates no longer have even a basic understanding of circuits, devices, and systems, even though site lighting, electric motors, programmable logic controllers, traffic control and signalling and other electrical matters are a routine part of what civil engieers do.
    While new graduates may have at least been introduced to fluid mechanics, it is primarily water and non-compressible fluids. Compressible fluids, like air, compressed chlorine gas, shale (natural) gas, steam, etc. that is Thermodyanamics, is missing. We don’t need every graduate to be an expert, but we need them to have a basic understanding of Thermo.
    Subjects like these must be in the Masters ‘or equal’ requirements to satisfy to qualify for a Professional Engineer license.
    The changing educational system in the US brought on by expense cutting and cutting and cutting, necessitates a change in our requirements for professionals licensed to protect the public.

    • Property law and closing a traverse — OK, civil engineering or surveying?

      My summer job during college, late 1980s, was with a civil engineering & surveying firm. The owner/founder was both a PE and LS. Engineering and surveying went hand in hand at that job. Surveying was not any part of the BSCE degree I earned but the degree at that institution 30 years before that had at least 5 courses in surveying (roads/highway/rail). The difference between a level and a theodolite was not something that mattered, if the instruments themselves did or that a scale was anything more than a straight-edge.

      Surveying is a clear example where we (civil engineers/ASCE) have decided to remove technical content from what comprises a civil engineering degree. Just the basis of error in measurement, significant digits, and what a blunder or mistake is never seems to be an issue. OK, the computer spits out a value with 16 digits, it must be then be really, really accurate!

      ” … assumes one can teach engineering without having practical engineering experience. No other profession or trade makes this assumption!” Is it really controversial or too much to require faculty to have practical engineering experience?

      ASCE can influence a great deal to what is a BS civil engineering degree and establishing standards for faculty.

  • What do I think?

    I think many will agree that Europe’s mindset relative to infrastruture (i.e., bulid it to last the from the beginning) results in more sustainable infrastructure than ours.

    I think it is crazy that other countries are leading the way into the future and we haven’t even really decided whether or not to follow.

    I think we need to realize that this isn’t your dad’s civil engineering anymore. I should know, I asked him.

    That’s what I think.