[This is the submitted form of my regular Union column that was published in the newspaper’s 11feb12 print and online editions.]
“Engineers in the European Union are free to work anywhere in the 27 member states, but recognition of their professional qualifications is often a stumbling block.” So starts ‘Passport to Engineering’ in the February 2012 IEEE Spectrum, the prestigious flagship periodical of the world’s premier professional organization for engineers. Europe’s engineers are about to be carded with a little piece of plastic – the new “engineerING card” - that is supposed to help them find engineering jobs all over the EU.
The card, developed by the European Federation of National Engineering Associations, will contain information about its holder’s education and “professional qualifications in accord with internationally recognized standards.” The cards will be issued by the engineer’s country of origin. Supposedly, with this card it will be easier for a Spanish engineer to get a job in Sweden.
The problem is that each country has its own standards for what is put on the card, and also what kind of government agency or bureau issues the card. Some of these organizations don’t know jack squat about engineering. Nevertheless, everyone is talking about Brussels making these cards into a legal gateway for engineering employment in the EU on the basis that it would facilitate cross-border hiring of technical types. I’m not so sure.
Before looking at the ‘oops side’ of this bureaucratic brainchild, let’s back up and consider what the historical open market in engineering talent has brought to our civilization. In free capitalist countries anyone who could do engineering could call himself and engineer – even correctly spelling it was optional. People with ideas, maybe with some education, and maybe with some experience would get in their proverbial garages and come up with all kinds of stuff ranging from telephones, airplanes, automobile assembly lines, and on and on. Would you believe that even the most successful and long-lived Sidewinder air-to-air missile came out of a garage in Ridgecrest, California?
One of the advantages that engineers and most other technologists have over other professions is that they can be quickly vetted by hiring managers who are also competent in the jobs they are trying to fill. When engineers and scientists meet, be it in a conference room, at a little league game, or cocktail party, somewhere in their conversation they give what may be called a ‘technical handshake’. This consists of casual questions and answers about projects, experience, and/or possible solutions to a problem that gives each an overview of the other’s technical knowledge. More importantly, it lets each know whether digging deeper is warranted.
Let me be clear, during an interview the technical hiring manager will quickly plumb the depths of the engineering applicant. And the basis for hiring will depend least on the kind of formal credentials the applicant has. (Full disclosure, I am a lifelong registered professional engineer with a bunch of degrees and decades of experience in hiring technical staff.) More often than not, some of the most brilliant and creative engineers have very modest credentials or no formal credentials at all. They just studied on their own, and started doing the technical work because the only barriers to entry into the field was their own lack of knowledge and gumption. It wasn’t what you had on a card or piece of paper.
Examples of large companies started by our credentially challenged engineers is too long to list, we all know their names. My concern about the EU’s ‘engineerING card’ becoming law in Europe is that it will have the predictable result of restricting creative and talented technicians entering and being mobile in its technology job markets. That itself may not be a big deal in Europe, where almost no garage start-ups grow to be industry giants. But it will be a big deal if this is another European folly that America wants to mimic here. On these shores imposing an ‘engineerING card’ between a qualified worker and an engineering job would be devastating to both the pace and substance of our economic growth.
George Rebane is an entrepreneur and a retired systems scientist in Nevada County who regularly expands these and other themes on KVMR and Rebane’s Ruminations (www.georgerebane.com).