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Who is an engineer?

I feel the terms "Engineer" and "Engineering" are the most misunderstood, misused and misinterpreted nomenclatures, writes RK Abrol.

india Updated: Nov 28, 2007 22:11 IST
RK Abrol

After 55 years of experience in engineering, I have come to the conclusion that the terms "Engineer" and "Engineering" are the most misunderstood, misused and misinterpreted nomenclatures and that no precise definition of these terms exists in India or, perhaps, elsewhere in the world. In some countries – Australia, Bahrain, Canada-Ontario, Korea, Malaysia, South Africa and USA – there is an Engineers Act that defines who an "engineer" is in that particular country. However, this definition varies from country to country.

In contrast, almost all other known professions are clearly defined and identified as such. For example, in the medical professsion, "doctor" is well defined legally and statutorily in every country.

In India, owing to the absence of any law to regulate the engineering profession, there is no legal definition for the engineering profession. There is no statutory/legal authority to regulate the profession under an Act of Parliament.

Who's an engineer?

In 1958, when I joined Air India as engineer trainee, I found that even mechanics, after passing some license examinations, became 'aircraft maintenance engineers' without possessing any engineering degree/diploma. Over the years, I've come across electricians, car mechanics, overseers and draftsmen designating themselves as Engineers. I've even heard plumbers calling themselves sanitary engineers!

For a few years of my 24 years' service with the Institution of Engineers (India), the largest professional engineering society in India, I was head of their membership department. Scrutinising membership applications, I found that a large number of applicants were unqualified or under-qualified professionals who insisted they were engineers. I looked for a universally acceptable definition, legal or otherwise, of 'Engineer'; there was none available.

What is engineering?

A commonly accepted one: "Engineering is the application of mathematics and science to create something of value from natural resources."

Other definitions: Applied science, with an eye toward ethical behavior; designing and building things that meet customer requirements; using scientific information for practical purposes; applying technology toward human needs; the art of applying science to the optimum conversion of natural resources to the benefit of humankind; and the bridge between science and art.

What do engineers do?

The prevailing concept: Engineers are people who solve problems and focus on making things work more efficiently and effectively. They apply the theories and principles of science and mathematics to research and develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work is the link between perceived social needs and commercial applications.

Engineers: design products, machinery and plants to manufacture products and systems to ensure quality and efficiency; design, plan, and supervise construction of buildings and ensure their safety and stability against hazards; design highways, bridges, railways and transit systems; design dams, irrigation canals, aqueducts, power houses; design ports, harbours as well as off-shore structures; develop and implement improved ways to extract, process, and use raw materials; develop new materials that improve product performance and take advantage of advances in technology; harness the power of the sun, the earth, atoms, and electricity for supplying a nation's power needs; analyse the impact of the products they develop or the systems they design on the environment and on people using them.

You see? With such a vast and varied nature of their activities, it is not difficult to understand why the title "Engineer" cannot be defined precisely like titles of other professions.

Engineers Bill

The enactment of an Engineers Bill is under active consideration at the Ministry of Human Resources Development currently. Once enacted, this will go a long way in defining who an Engineer is and will protect the "Engineer" title. It will: identify those with proven competence to practice the profession of engineering; introduce a recognised system for licensing/certification of engineers; prevent unqualified/under-qualified/incompetent professionals from practicing the profession; ensure that Engineers follow the technical codes, standards and by-laws; and enforce a code of ethics.

The writer also presented these views at the 5th National Conference of the Engineering Council of India
on November 5, 2007.