Engineering vs. Engineering Technology: Who Knows and Who Cares?
Arnie Peskin posted on June 11, 2014 |
Within the engineering profession there are several different categories, each with its own purposes...

Within the engineering profession there are several different categories, each with its own purposes and attributes. These categories involve different training and naturally lead to different careers. Or so the story goes.

But two of these categories, engineering and engineering technology, are widely misunderstood.  Their differences are poorly recognized, and they thus cast doubt on this conventional wisdom. There are individuals trained in Engineering who perform jobs envisioned for ET, and vice versa.

The terms are often used interchangeably by the general public. Those who advise students or hire technical people are seldom aware of the differences. So what is going on here and should today's engineer be concerned?

There is perhaps no better way to contrast the two than by the standards to which they are held, and one way to see that is in their undergraduate program criteria as promulgated by the profession's most well-known accreditation organization, ABET. That organization sees differences in both curricular focus and career path.

Whereas engineering programs focus on theory and design, ET programs specialize in application and implementation. It follows that engineering programs have higher-level math and theoretical science in their curricula and engineering technology programs tend to put greater emphasis on hands-on laboratory skills.

In terms of career paths, it is likely that more engineering graduates will attend graduate school while technologists will typically find employment in such sectors as manufacturing, testing, or sales, and if they do go on to graduate school, it might be for management or business administration. The problem with this ABET model is that there is actually a great deal of overlap in both curriculum and in the paths of the graduates.

Another way to make the demarcation is to look at the question of licensing. This is possibly an even murkier picture than that painted by educational preparation. Most of the United States allow engineering technologists to sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, but some don't, and some have different rules for the amount of subsequent practical experience required for a license.

Internationally, the situation is even more confusing, with some nations having university degrees that do not correspond very well to the US (and ABET) model of Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.

A few more data points, if you will. In 2007, IEEE conducted an informal survey on the question of what should be considered the appropriate terminal professional degree. The result strongly favored the Bachelors. A brief analysis of the data showed that this position was favored by both engineers and technologists, with the main factor being what the highest degree attained by the respondent happened to be, not EE vs. ET. At about the same time, IEEE and the Society for Manufacturing Engineers jointly developed an exam for graduating electrical engineering technologists in those states that barred ET students from the Fundamentals exam, but few colleges have taken advantage of its availability.

So we seem to have a distinction without a real difference, and what are we as members of the engineering profession to do about it. Many believe that there is not a true difference as things stand but there should be. The profession is large and complex enough to need both those who specialize in the more abstract pursuits and those who are experts in applied endeavors. The differences should be more sharply drawn in education and training. At the same time, the public sector (employers, students, high-school counselors, politicians and the general public) needs to be educated as to the particular value of each. Once we are properly utilizing and truly appreciating what each discipline brings to the table, the appropriate distinctive recognition will follow and overall the profession will be stronger for it.

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