February 2002

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Becoming a Professional Education is Only the Beginning

by Janet Rochester

Engineers spend a minimum of four years preparing to enter the profession. These years focus almost entirely on technical information. Universities try to include professional skills courses along the way, such as writing, public speaking, and team skills. Students enrolled in cooperative programs or who have work experience have additional opportunities to learn and practice these skills. Together, the technical and non-technical skills are the tools engineers need to be competent in their chosen work. But these skills alone do not make engineers professionals.

Engineers become professionals by demonstrating professional behavior according to the criteria that define a profession. While there are no universal, binding criteria, most of the essential attributes of a profession can be summarized in a fairly short list (Greenwood):

  • Theory, skills, education
  • Authority, autonomy
  • Community sanction, including licensing and certification
  • Ethics
  • Culture, associations
  • Service orientation

Theory, Skills and Education  The Path Begins (and Continues) Here

Engineering students follow a rigorous course of study. Most of their time is spent in science, mathematics and engineering classes, with fewer than 20 percent of their coursework being in arts and humanities. Technical curriculum requirements continue to expand as universities struggle to add modern courses, while keeping the foundation courses in place. Universities recognize that students need writing and speaking skills and try to provide them. But students often do not recognize their relevance, and they reject these classes in favor of other technical coursework.

Companies hire engineers who can demonstrate that they have the technical competence that the companies need. The more urgent the need for a skill, the less attention a company pays to other capabilities. Once hired, however, engineers must maintain their technical competence and seek ways to attain non-technical skills, as many managers do not believe it is their job to help staff plan their career paths.

Companies and engineers should see continuing education as a joint responsibility. Companies invest money in service contracts for equipment, building upgrades and maintenance. They should also invest in the education of their engineers. At the same time, engineers must invest in their own education. After all, if they do not take their careers seriously enough to maintain technical competence, why should their employers?

As engineers gain experience, the courses they take may not focus on engineering. They may need team leadership, project management or negotiating skills as they move into leadership or management roles. Engineers who do not move into management will find uses for such non-technical skills as well, especially if they are tasked with mentoring new engineers. Regardless of the career track chosen, however, the need to maintain technical competence never disappears.

Authority and Autonomy

Engineers often enjoy high status in their company compared to other employees. As a result, they also have a higher level of authority over their work. Other workers recognize engineers' education and afford them status; the company recognizes their education and grants them authority. Engineers must maintain their education to maintain their position. Likewise, they must be willing to accept the authority  and the responsibility that goes with it. Such acceptance means taking control of their work and of the quality of the outcome. Taking control is not always easy  and is sometimes impossible  but it is how engineers establish autonomy.

Community Sanction, Including Licensing and Certification

Through state licensing boards and P.E. examinations, engineers are sanctioned by the community to practice their profession. Engineers in industry may use the "industrial exemption" and not take the P.E. exam, but then they are then restricted in the types of work they can do. It may be a good career move for engineers in industry to take the P.E. examinations, especially if they work for a small company with few other engineers. Once qualified, licensed engineers can represent the company in situations that prohibit representation from unlicensed engineers.

Community sanction also includes allowing the engineering disciplines to control who enters the profession and then to stipulate their behavior as members of that discipline. For example, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), an independent body of engineering professionals who volunteer to review the programs, accredits college and university engineering programs. Similarly, the P.E. examinations are set and graded by volunteer professionals.


All engineering societies have codes of ethics that guide their members' behavior. These codes identify what members should and should not do when dealing with clients, other engineers, the public, and society as a whole. The codes were written with the independent professional in mind; engineers in industry also have corporate culture, policies, and even corporate ethical guidelines to follow. These corporate policies may not deal with specific circumstances and may sometimes even conflict with the professional ethics set forth.

Engineers in both groups have to consider their professional ethics and their own personal ethics as they plan their careers. Independent professionals have a closer, more direct relationship with clients and other parties and have more control over the work they accept. Management assigns projects to engineers in industry, so they have their employers as intermediaries with clients. These engineers have to be concerned with another set of interests: their employer's. These corporate interests may not always agree with the engineer's own ethical principles, or with what the engineer perceives as the public interest. Engineers in industry should be aware of their company's ethics policy. 

People continue to debate whether ethics can be taught or whether ethics training in companies has any value. These questions probably don't need definitive answers. By establishing an ethics policy and making employees aware of it, a company lets the employees know that it expects them to conduct themselves ethically in the workplace. Annual training, surveys, or questionnaires may not change the ethical values of the employees, but they will remind employees of the company's expectations.

Professional Cultures and Associations

All major professions have a culture. It may not be easy to define, but at its basic level, a professional culture represents a shared experience that others do not have. This shared experience is reinforced by professional associations, which serve as sources of information, education and mutual support. The network of professionals found in professional associations can be extremely useful to both engineers in industry and to independent professionals. Such networks serve as the source of information about technology, employers, or job prospects, and networking activities are almost always conducted in a spirit of reciprocity.

In addition, a profession's culture grows out of the characteristics of the people who make up the profession and from the skills used in its practice. In general, engineering is a practical, problem-solving and detail-oriented occupation  attracting people who tend to like to work with things rather than ideas or people. Therefore, the profession tends to attract a more introverted personality type than many other occupations. This tendency forms the basis for the public's general lack of understanding about engineering.

Service Orientation

Engineers provide services to society. The services of the chip-builder are less obvious than those of the bridge-builder, but they exist nonetheless. Engineering work should always be done with its potential impact on society in mind. Mistakes may cost the company money in rework, and they may cause significant damage, or in the worst cases, injury or loss of life. Engineers in industry have fewer responsibilities than independent professionals, but overall, all engineers have the individual responsibility for their own work.

Independent professionals who deal directly with the public use their education and skills to help individuals make decisions that they lack the skills to make. Engineers in industry do not normally provide this level of service to the public. Nevertheless, they must see their work as benefiting the public in some way.

As another aspect of service, engineers have a professional obligation to work for the good of society. Engineers' opportunities for sharing knowledge and experience abound. They can explain what engineers do to primary school classes, assist students in engineering contests, prepare graduate seminars or write papers or books for publication, among other things.

Different still is the prospect of political service. Engineers are often reluctant to become involved in political life. However, as technological literacy among the general population continues to be low, engineers' expertise is needed at every level. Engineers can be valuable contributors at public meetings and to civic groups and political organizations. Those who want to make a long-term commitment can find many opportunities to participate in civic life.

Growth as a professional is a continuing process; it is something engineers must pursue throughout their careers. At different career stages, the attributes of being a professional will assume more or less importance to individual engineers. But by being aware of the attributes and the process of achieving professionalism, engineers will certainly enhance their profession.


Greenwood, E. "Attributes of a Profession", in Moral Responsibility and the Professions, Eds. Bernard Baumrin and Benjamin Freedman, Haven Publications, New York, 1983.



Janet Rochester is a lead member of the engineering staff at Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems in Moorestown, N.J. She is a Senior Member of IEEE, a member of the IEEE Professional Communications Society, and treasurer of the IEEE's Philadelphia Section.



Copyright 2003, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.