I often wonder if people who have been in our profession for a number of years tend to become desensitized to the impact of the work we do as engineers. When immersed in projects on a daily basis, it is easy to lose sight of how our work affects the lives of many. Over the course of the last year, I’ve come to realize we are selling ourselves short and that a healthy reminder of the significance of our work would do us all good.
I was recently talking with my cousin — a piano tuner — about what I do for a living. From her perspective, it was a little unclear. She knew I was an engineer, but didn’t really know what that meant in terms of the specific work I do. When she asked what I do, I asked her if she wanted the 30-minute version or the three-minute version. She enthusiastically requested the 30-minute version, something nobody had asked of me in years.
Not knowing where to begin, I just started talking. I told her about what we do with water: the levee work, the dam work, and how we protect ways of life. I started talking about energy and what we’re doing with solar power, wind power, and power lines. I went into detail about transportation, our developments in rapid transit, and what goes into keeping roads and bridges safe. I’m not sure how long I was talking, but when I was finished, the response I got was, “Wow! You guys do a lot of cool stuff!” It was a simple statement, but it reminded me of the wonderment that prompted me to become an engineer in the first place.
Over the next 10 months, I traveled to more than 50 Kleinfelder offices and noticed a trend among the employees. The non-scientists, non-engineers, and non-architects were displaying the most pride in the work being done. They looked up to those who were coming up with solutions to problems. Even those doing office paperwork felt as though they were part of a team solving the world’s problems. It was the seasoned engineers who seemed too mired in their daily tasks to remember the significance of what they do. I believe we need to be able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture once in a while. The three points below will help us do so.
1) We built this country
The fact that the United States is the world’s foremost economic superpower is largely due to our advancements in engineering and science. Had the Erie Canal not been constructed, westward expansion would have come to a halt and New York City would not have become what it is. Without the knowledge gained from the construction of the canal, life would be unsustainable in much of the country where water is sparse.
American scientists and engineers were the ones who developed an inexpensive way to manufacture steel, which led to the industrial revolution. Along with it came more effective modes of transportation and building, leading to the population and economic booms. Without engineers, our country could not have become what it is today.
2) We make a difference in the world
When we flip a switch, the lights come on. When we turn on the tap, we trust the water is clean and potable. When we drive home from work, we trust the roads won’t collapse. Over the last 100 years, life expectancy has doubled in the U.S., the main factor in which has not been advances in medicine, but advances in clean water technology and sanitation. It amazes me to think of the difference each of our projects makes. We are solving the world’s problems every day.
Take for example my colleague, Jeremiah Jackson. A casual phone conversation with his brother — a journalist in India at the time — led to an innovative solution to remove arsenic from drinking water using not much more than plants and a hand pump, making it easy and affordable for millions of people in remote villages to have purified drinking water. Although this is just one of many projects I could mention, the thought of how grateful the children of these villages are illustrates the difference we make as engineers every day.
3) We get it right
Consider the percentage of products that aren’t quite right. We depend on medicines with side effects and newspapers with daily corrections sections. A recent study even showed IRS agents give incorrect tax advice one-third of the time.
As engineers, what would happen if we were wrong just 2 percent of the time? What would happen to the U.S. if 2 percent of our roads and bridges collapsed, 2 percent of our dams and levees failed, and 2 percent of our drinking water was contaminated with arsenic?
With these three thoughts, I hope to remind all engineers that our country and our world would be completely different places if it weren’t for the work we do every day. Almost every person on our planet has been positively affected in some way by the engineering profession, and we should be proud of that every day we wake up and go to work.
Bill Siegel joined Kleinfelder in 1985 as an engineer in the company’s Las Vegas office. He went on to serve a variety of leadership roles within the Kleinfelder organization, and he helped lead a growth strategy that turned Kleinfelder into a coast-to-coast company. He has occupied eight different positions at the firm in a broad range of operational and strategic roles, including senior vice president for corporate development and sitting on the company’s board of directors before being elected CEO in April 2009. In addition to his roles within Kleinfelder, Siegel has also been active in various trade organizations. He was involved in the San Diego chapter of the Consulting Engineers and Land Surveyors of California (now the American Council of Engineering Companies – California) and was elected to the board of directors of the California Geotechnical Engineers Association. Siegel was also elected to the American Council of Engineering Companies board of directors in Colorado and became a member of the national ACEC business practices committee.