September President's Message
Thursday, September 13, 2018
Posted by: Tim Hart
Do you cringe at least a little bit when you are asked about structures that have collapsed or have made the news because of their “structural” problems? Or when your friends or relatives ask you how your architecture practice is doing? Or when you attend the grand opening of a building that you worked on where the architect, general contractor, and the project manager get recognition and perhaps a small gift for their work and all you get is free food? Or when the architect for a project that you are bidding on calls you and asks you to lower your proposed fee by 10 percent because the building owner does not understand why you are asking for so much money?
I think it is fair to say that structural engineers have a public relations problem. I think it is also fair to say that this is not a new issue. I came across a 2004 letter to the SEAONC newsletter from one of our members talking about a volunteer project his firm worked on that was featured in a number of newspaper articles. During the project construction, there was an issue with the foundation that threatened to jeopardize the project. The structural engineer, contractor, and a geotechnical engineer worked on a Saturday and developed a solution that day that allowed the project to proceed and ultimately succeed. However, the newspaper articles written about the project talked about how the “contractors, architects, and building officials” worked together to solve the problem. There was no mention of “engineers”.
At most structural engineering conferences that I’ve attended, I hear engineers talk about how the public does not appreciate what we do, how our clients don’t appreciate what we do, how building owners see structural engineering as a commodity, and so on. However, that is usually where the conversations end, by identifying the problems but not identifying any solutions. Our public relations problem has an impact on our self-esteem, on our ability to attract new engineers to our profession, and on our bottom lines. Thus I believe we should do more than just identify the problems and complain amongst ourselves about them. We should be looking for solutions.
There was an interesting article in the June 2018 SEAOC Talk newsletter from two young engineers in Southern California that talked about the public’s perception of structural engineers and included suggestions for how to address it. It can be found here.
I believe the best way we can address our public relations problem is by reaching out to the public through service to our association, to our profession, and to people in our communities. SEAONC has a long history of supporting community organizations such as Rebuilding Together and Engineers Alliance for the Arts. I not only want SEAONC to continue supporting those efforts but also to expand upon them to include other organizations and groups that work in the community. I want to tap into the great enthusiasm there is within our members to use their expertise, their talents, and their energy to help others. I want to encourage and support the efforts of our committees to reach out to the public, including the efforts of the Public Outreach Committee and the newly formed Resilience Committee. I want to explore ways that we can have our voices heard in the public forum, including in our government. Finally, I want to encourage and support the efforts of our technical committees to improve our building codes, our design standards, and our construction technologies. It may not be obvious that this work, as tedious and anonymous as it can sometimes be, provides a service to the public. However, I believe that this work serves the public by making it possible to build safer, more durable, more sustainable buildings.
Structural engineers are making the world a better place. We are saving lives. That is what I want my community to know about us. That is what I want future structural engineers to know about our profession. That is what we should be reminding ourselves, and our clients, of as frequently as we can.