Engineering better engineers

January 2010 » Columns » RISKY BUSINESS
John P. Bachner

Lawyers are ruining engineering. Because of the ever-present risk of negligence litigation, engineers are afraid to risk anything. They do it safe, which often means doing it just like it’s been done a thousand times before. They don’t innovate or dare, which is kind of a good thing because it allows engineers to comply with a clients’ number-two imperative: Do it fast. And it also helps with the number-one imperative: Do it cheap.

Blame the lawyers. Blame the system. Blame litigation.

Poppycock! I’ve observed engineers and engineering for more than 40 years. While bold, innovative design clearly presents more risk than crank-it-out commodity design, the risk of negligence liability is aggravated by two key factors.

First, engineers fail to learn who their clients and client representatives really are. They fail to use the contract-formation process to ask important questions such as, “Where is your funding coming from?” and “What’s your overall budget?” It’s almost as though engineers don’t want to ask because what they learn might suggest that they should forgo the commission. Besides, they’ll learn the answers eventually, often when they discover that the project was fatally underfunded, but the owner proceeded anyway, cutting corners to make ends meet. That causes problems to arise. Then fingers get pointed. Lawyers get retained. And — voila! — lawyers are ruining engineering.

Second, engineers fail to speak out when it would be beneficial. So, the various players move forward, gliding on the wheels of assumption to the land of unrealistic expectations. When the unrealistic expectations become unmet, fingers get pointed. Lawyers get retained. And — voila! — lawyers are ruining engineering.

Risk management is not rocket science. It’s based on empirical evidence documented through hundreds of case histories. And I’ve been involved with enough of those case histories to know that claims and litigation are not at all inevitable. Managing your negligence risk requires careful client and project selection. It also requires basic leadership skills: the ability to make representatives of the owner, client, colleagues, and other technical professional organizations aware of key concerns and to convince them to follow engineering guidance based on sound engineering judgment.

Lawyers are advocates for their clients. They pursue those engineers who are too [fill in the blank] to learn how to manage the risks posed by virtually any project, including those where their clients agree to try something different. And until engineers acquire and apply basic leadership skills — fundamental communications skills, really — they will continue to be regarded as little more than commodities — low-hanging fruit for lawyers to harvest on their clients’ behalf.

Wouldn’t it be great if universities could start graduating young men and women with dual majors in engineering and leadership? Not only would these technical professionals diminish their risks and enhance their satisfaction; they would comprise the vanguard of a growing cadre of engineers unwilling to accept marginalization in the marketplace; unwilling to play the role of commodity.

But, it’s impossible to achieve this in four years of college. In four years, all we can hope for are technical commodities; bright individuals whose lack of leadership skills forces them to be marginalized from the get-go, content to do what they’re told.

The solution: Require that, to earn an engineering degree, people need to learn more (and different) things, just as the American Society of Civil Engineers has proposed. Not only are students opposed to that, so, too, are many consulting engineers who continually complain that they’re treated like commodities and forced to charge rates that are too low, especially given the constant threat of litigation. They don’t want to wait another six months or a year for people to be employable. And they certainly do not want to pay the higher salaries that better-educated, far more competent individuals would demand.

When we can graduate engineers who have learned how to be professionals, who are familiar with their own glorious past, and who know how and expect to lead, we will graduate people who others will admire and not marginalize or regard as commodities. We will graduate people who will earn respect for themselves and their profession, who know how to recognize and manage risk, and who will command fees commensurate with their newly recognized value.

In short, if we’re ever going to get out of this hole we’ve dug for ourselves, we need to start engineering better engineers. If we don’t, engineering will become an even riskier business than it already is. And if that happens, be honest about it: Blame the engineers.

John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE, a not-for-profit association that provides programs, services, and materials to help geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms prosper through professionalism. Visit ASFE’s website at www.asfe.org


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