What Industry Expects of the Engineer
JUNE 01, 1959 by MARVIN M. SCHMIDT
Mr. Schmidt is an industrialist and President of the Iowa College Foundation. This article is a condensation of his address on February 25, 1959, before the Iowa Engineering Society in Des Moines.
Recognizing its heavy dependence upon the engineer and scientist, and also knowing that research and development are an important element in the rapidly rising fixed costs of doing business, management is properly asking whether the return is commensurate with the investment, whether the American engineer and scientist are doing the best job of which they are capable, and whether the quality of our scientific and engineering knowledge is all that it ought to be.
Industry, of course, expects technical competence from its engineers. To whatever extent, if any, America may now be lagging in such competence, by contrast with its economic competitors, that lag can and will be overcome without undue difficulty. The question here is only one of how much time will be needed to reassert unquestioned supremacy, and I believe it will be less than the pessimists fear.
But a growing part of industrial management—and, in my opinion, the most responsible and forward-looking part—has fears of a deeper sort about engineers, scientists, and members of the professions generally. We fear that the engineer, the physicist, the chemist, the medical specialist, and the legal expert may feel he has discharged his full debt to society by attaining utmost mastery of his own occupation.
There is a strong temptation for the professional man to feel this way, as he struggles to assimilate the mass of new knowledge constantly being introduced into his own specialty and to relate his work to even a few other disciplines that are most closely allied with it.
There is a strong temptation for the scientific and technical man to say to himself, "I have devised the formula—or put together the machine—and that is the end of my responsibility. What happens afterwards, or what happens outside the world of formulas and machines is somebody else’s responsibility."
There is, I suspect, a temptation for the technically educated man—trained in mathematical exactitude and the handling of nonhuman materials—to feel a secret scorn for what he understandably, but shortsightedly, views as the bunglings of politics and the untidy confusion of humanity outside science.
Human Problems in Industry
It may surprise some of you to learn that industrial management becomes more and more convinced that strictly technological problems of the kind with which you directly deal as engineers are now of secondary importance to the far less manageable human problems that crowd in upon industry from every side. Management is increasingly preoccupied with a concept called "freedom," which lies beyond the boundaries of mathematics and science but has a greater practical bearing on the future of American industry than the blueprints and designs and testing laboratories. Management is giving serious heed to words like those of Dr. Charles Malik, the great Lebanese philosopher and statesman, who said the other day at Dallas, Texas, that the United States faces three great dangers to its survival as a dominant force for good. Dr. Malik listed these dangers as follows:
1. A possible weakening in America’s faith in its own ultimate values.
2. A wave of complacency, ease, and comfort.
3. A conspiracy of forces, worldwide in nature, whose only concern is to blacken the name of America.
Some will say that engineers and scientists are doing their full part to meet these dangers by providing America with the means of out-producing its enemies in material goods, whether of military hardware or of civilian well-being. Industrial management is no longer sure that this is a good enough answer; in fact, it holds the opinion that this is not enough.
Believe me, as American industrial managers survey the slow erosion of freedom in American life, we are painfully aware of our own shortsightedness in giving too little attention to the climate of political and moral values out of which this erosion has developed. We, as part of management, are beginning to see that if we occupy our energies entirely with research and development, production, marketing, and finance, we can build a superlatively excellent economic machine, only to have it seized by the foes of freedom and transformed into an instrument of destruction for the liberties of the American people.
The Armor of Citizenship
We management people now have started to realize that we have a bigger responsibility than that of management in the narrow and technical sense if we are to be true to our trust to the millions who have invested their savings in the capital enterprises we operate and to the many more millions who look to us for employment as free men and for goods and services in a free market. We know now that we must find the time in our days to break out of our confining shells as management technicians and assume our proper responsibility as citizens to help preserve a free society. And what we ask of ourselves, we feel we have a right to ask from the members of that professional and technical elite—including engineers—who are associated with us in American industry. We have awakened to the solemn truth that productive capacity and technological skills do not of themselves spell freedom.
And so it is that the real obligation which industry lays upon the engineer is an obligation to put on the armor of alert and stalwart citizenship, in which you will sally forth from the protective cloister of the drafting room, and do battle in the hard, tough, and confusing world of conflicting ideas, swirling emotions, and highly charged propaganda. This is the world where America’s destiny will be decided. This is the world where the issue will be settled: whether you and your descendants, along with the rest of us and our descendants, will be kept and faceless automatons of a superstate, ruled by force and fear, or whether we shall safeguard our heritage of individual choice and personal decision.
Understand and Explain
Effective participation in this struggle requires that you understand, and—beyond understanding—speak out, on such issues as taxation, profits, and labor relations. It requires that you grasp the significance of a tax load that has risen from 11 per cent of net national product in 1929 to one-third of that product now. It requires that you be prepared to explain the significance of this increase to all with whom you come in contact, and that you join in an organized way with others to check this trend before the tax load grows to 40, 50, or 60 per cent of all we produce.
Effectiveness in the struggle for freedom requires that you take some personal part in rescuing the honorable word "profit" from the disrepute into which we have permitted designing men to drag it. The trend toward state control has been accelerated because we have allowed the institutions of free market capitalism to fall into disrepute. Each of us, as part of American industry, has an obligation to re-establish profit in the minds of men for what it really is : a social institution that provides one of the foundation stones of liberty. In a competitive society, it is the reward for social service which the community, of its own free will, bestows on the enterpriser. If the concept of profit is destroyed, then we must turn our backs on the whole idea of free choice in economic affairs, and be prepared to accept the dictates of whoever is powerful enough to gain and hold control of the State.
Effectiveness in the struggle for freedom requires that you have the courage to speak out against the abuses inherent in labor union monopoly power, which lead inevitably to the sordid state of affairs so abundantly documented by the McClellan Committee. You must be prepared to help strip the mask of hypocrisy and apology from the police departments, sheriff’s offices, and—yes—even judges on the bench, who bow to the inordinate political power of union officials by blinding their eyes to bombings, beatings, arson, and physical violence on the picket line. You may need to join with other good citizens in helping to establish local crime commissions that will concern themselves with upgrading the whole standard of law enforcement in this country as it relates not only to labor hooliganism but also to syndicated crime, juvenile delinquency, and a host of other sores that are eating away at the vitals of America.
The Promise of Freedom
In short, industry asks of the engineer that, in addition to being the best possible engineer, he be also—and above all else—a true American. Industry asks that the engineer first see for himself and then help others to see the glorious promise that the enterprise system holds for the future of our people. The engineer, better than most, can document the record that this system has made and is making in eliminating poverty and fear of starvation, in conquering disease, in giving people the leisure for education and cultural fulfillment. All of these things it is doing, not with the lash and the knout, but while preserving liberty and freedom of choice.
It is for us who believe in the enterprise system—engineers included—to think and act in terms of its promise, and to interpret it positively as the most dependable way to achieve the highest aspirations of the human spirit.