Professionalism and Engineering

Engineering ProfessionalismProfessionalism and Engineering

Professionalism is a commonplace term regularly used in the workplace environment. Many may think they understand its meaning, but the true nature of “professionalism” is complex and multi-faceted. One definition of professionalism is given here.

Professionalism is an expression of ideals by which licensed engineers should strive to interact with one another as well as serve the society around them. This concept is the basis of public trust, which is an integral part of the profession’s success.

The characteristics and traits of the ideals mentioned above have evolved over time. This article will explore these, and unpack the essence of what it means to belong to a particular profession, and how to train and live as an engineering professional. The ethics and challenges of belonging to such a profession will be discussed, as well as the institutions created to help support and guide engineers.

What Constitutes a Profession?

A profession is an occupation based on a specialized calling, encompassing an array of skills and knowledge, with a particular job description and recognized obligation to others. A profession is much more than simply an occupation, it embodies the notion of advanced learning, a brotherhood amongst professionals, and a perceived moral, ethical and occupational advantage over the layman.

A specific profession is derived from a corporate group of practitioners practicing that profession. In the broadest sense, a profession is therefore an occupation that is characterized by its:

  • Body of knowledge and art that is held as a common tenure, extended through a common effort.
  • Educational process based on the above, through which the ordering of the professional group has an established, documented, responsibility.
  • Standard of personal qualification that enables admission based on character, education, education, background and proven competencies.
  • Appropriate conduct defined by an ethical code designed to guide the practitioner in interactions with employers, clients, fellow employees, and society as a whole.
  • Formally recognized status, as defined by the State or other members of the profession.
  • Organization of its members who are focused on common advancement, economic well-being, and social duty.

Any profession with the above qualities will garner respect by possessing particular knowledge and skills requested by members of the public and society in general. In the case of engineering, only the professional can determine the detailed needs of the employer or client. The way in which those needs are met are also paramount, and related to the professional’s obligation to trust and ethical practice.

When members of a profession associate and learn from each other and are bound by the spirit of self-expression and service excellence, that profession will gain value in society. This can be mediated through membership to professional groups or organizations. Such organizations are responsible for establishing criterion that will determine membership. This ensures that only those qualified are eligible. It is a privilege as well as an obligation for those responsible to determine membership. It is also a precious right to autonomy of that profession. Professional organizations can therefore become the cornerstone of professional life. The nature of their membership will be discussed in more detail later.

What are the Traits of a Professional?

What are the Traits of a Professional

A professional is characterized not only by his or her skills, competencies, experience or qualifications. The professional also embodies excellence in the following spheres:

  • Reliability
  • Demeanor
  • Appearance
  • Education
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Correspondence
  • Organizational skills
  • Accountability and responsibility
  • Ethics, Morals and Integrity
  • Social duty

The professional should always aim to produce work of the highest quality, irrespective of material gain. This endeavor clearly requires varied and intellectual activities, reliant on certain skills. One key trait, education, is paramount. This can be improved upon throughout an engineer’s career by taking continuing education credits (CEC), increasing professional development hours (PDH) and ultimately ensuring continuing professional competency (CPC). Joy and pride in completed work will also continuously motivate professionals to attain their best.

Another important trait of a professional is the adherence to social duty. This is manifested through upholding the beliefs and standards of the profession and sharing these with the public. A professional whose standing is recognized, benefits the entire community in terms of both rewards and status. It is only through the development of a strong professional attitude that a professional person will be motivated to contribute greatly to society. It is possible that professional motivation and attitude are the prerequisites to receiving community recognition and related benefits; the two are closely linked.

The Engineer as a ProfessionalThe Engineer as a Professional

Engineering differs from other professions due to the absence of a direct, personal, practitioner-client relationship. Clients are rarely met, other than on special occasions such as groundbreaking, or work inspection visits.

Engineers work as members of a team that is led and managed by senior engineers, who are also team members. Senior and junior personnel often work together on a project, pooling their experiences and expertise to produce the best possible result. This differs from other professions e.g. law, architecture, medicine, where there is a clear division of labor. In the case of senior architectural staff, they are responsible for creativity, leaving mundane implementation to the younger/less experienced members. Surgeons and physicians work in a similar system, where it is the senior professionals who maintain an intimate involvement in the details of technical practice.

In contrast, senior engineers find themselves primarily involved and concerned with management issues. This includes aspects of human resources, construction supplies and finance. Junior engineers focus more on detailed technical engineering practices, taking direction from middle management. This interface between management/experience levels replaces the traditional client-practitioner relationship evident in other professions.

The outcome and scale of engineering projects, systems, products, and utilities, as well as the all-encompassing effect or influence on the functioning of the community, touch on almost all spheres of human life. This far reaching influence is considered unique amongst professionals. There is therefore a strong sense of personal and professional responsibility and obligation, adding a further layer of complexity that is absent from other fields of expertise. There must be an overriding incentive for service, as all engineering work reflect on society in some way or another. This is applicable at all levels of competency within an organization. As such, society as a whole can be viewed as “the client”. This multi-faceted nature of engineering ensures that the standard of accomplishment for most engineers has as much to do with high-level technical skills as with inherent professional skills.

Therefore, engineering is a unique profession in which all of the traits of a professional (outlined above) have crucial importance.

Ethics and Professionalism

The engineering profession is characterized by multiple challenges faced by engineers whilst executing their roles. These challenges fall out-with the gambit of everyday technical and design issues, and are encountered by both private practitioners as well as those employed by engineering firms. Many predicaments emanate from the inherent close relationship between engineering and human relations and between business and commerce.

Therefore, the conduct of engineers, their personal attitudes, as well as their relationships have a significance that supersedes the realm of personal morals. A Code of Ethics helps guide the professional conduct of engineers in all aspects of their work.

An understanding of ethics goes beyond the textbook definitions of “law” and “morals” and encompasses something extra, a sense of “rightness”. The Code of Ethics does not address a variety of conduct related problems nor is it a comprehensive list of ideals. It is rather a broad statement regarding the principles of appropriate behavior.

The professional can repay the trust and belief endowed by colleagues and the community at large through good professional conduct, as detailed in the Code of Ethics. Therefore, every engineer who wishes to rise to the status of a true professional should act in a manner that strengthens that level of trust. In every situation that relates to executing of their professional duties, this should be the guiding principle.

Similar guidelines, or Code of Ethics, may also apply in the sphere of industrial relations, in which engineers are collectively represented by a body or association comprised exclusively of engineering professionals. In this case, however, opinions may vary and can range from the radical to ultra conservative. In the context of challenging industrial relations, organizations, such as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), highlight the welfare and safety of the public over that of personal interest, as well as that the private conscience and judgment of the professional engineer must be protected.

In the engineering profession, a breach of ethics, warranting disciplinary action against its members, rarely occurs. This is not due to laxity in monitoring adherence to the Code of Ethics, but rather indicates that positive moral sanctions are sufficient to ensure professionalism. It is clear that members of a profession are as important as the profession itself, and vice versa. Self-monitoring of professional conduct can thus maintain the degree of excellence required by that profession.

Professionalism is therefore a philosophy and livelihood and not the merely the accumulation of learning experience. It cannot simply be taught by stating a Code of Ethics or memorizing a set of rules.

Institutional versus Instrumental Views

As mentioned, an important aspect of any particular profession is the propensity to form groups or organizations whose aim is to foster common advancement, execute social duty and ensure the economic well-being of members. Such organizations seek to promote the integrity and efficiency of professionals, as well as protect their welfare. In the context of engineering professionals in the USA, the profession is well represented and includes, amongst others:

  • The NSPE which is the advocate of licensed professional engineers. It presides over the terms and conditions of service, and aspects of an organization in the practice of engineering as a profession.
  • The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) which is a private, independent, nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service. Its mission “is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology”.

Professional engineers have, in the main, adopted an institutional view of these organizations. They are viewed as representatives of their profession, and by subscribing to membership and pledging loyalty to them, gain identity as a professional engineer. There is an inherent obligation to be part of these organizations and the call for unlimited effort, loyalty and giving of financial assistance is heeded without considering personal gain. All types of professional needs are protected and nurtured within these organizations. However, some professionals take an instrumental view, and offer their allegiance unwillingly, and with expectations of tangible forms of personal return. Clearly, for a professional whose aspiration is to gain true professional status, and to uphold societal and community obligations, an instrumental view of organizations is not recommended.


Related to the above, professionals who embrace an institutional view of their profession are much less likely to experience a conflict of loyalty between their employer and the profession, irrespective of their level of engagement to the organization. Their affiliated organizations will promote not only economic well-being, but also status within professional circles. There will be positive, knock on effects, such as; increased awareness of employment prerequisites, development of technical skills, and safeguarding of professional ideals and spirit. All of these improve commitment of the individual not only to specific jobs, but to the profession as a whole. Employees with a high sense of professionalism will guarantee the best service to their employer and the community. Seeking to create a united, strong and adequately rewarded profession will most obviously assist members of that profession.

Unfortunately, those who embrace an instrumental view of their professional organizations will probably also do so of their employment. This will result in a lack of responsible behavior, excellence and integrity. In the event of potential industrial conflict, it is unlikely that a professional will grant loyalty to their employer. The instrumental approach is therefore often paired with a low sense of professionalism.

Final Thoughts

Of the concepts of professionalism discussed here, one overriding theme is that being a professional engineer includes an unstated contract of service not only to the profession, but also the community. This service overrides any duties assigned specifically by the client. It is evident that the mere possession of a certain skill and even its practice does not qualify one to be a professional. This viewpoint of certified life was concisely stated 25 years ago by the American, William Wickenden, with the “Sermon on the Mount”: “Anybody who shall force thee to go one mile – go with him twain”. (Matthew 5:41.) (Roman law required that when a soldier travelled through the land, he could compel a civilian to help him with his burden for one mile.)

In conclusion, there is a responsibility to teach and guide the new generation of engineering professionals about the primary essence of professionalism, that of service to the community. Luckily, young engineers are inspired by the professional ideal, and tend to rise to altruistic motivations. This bodes well for the future of engineering professionalism.