The Modern Engineer: New Skills, Opportunities, and Obligations

Ethics symposium and newly launched master’s program helps provide needed training

10 April 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

As companies of all sizes work to develop innovative products and services for the marketplace, many are turning to their more technically gifted employees—engineers and scientists—to step into cross-functional and leadership roles. To fill these roles, companies need employees who can think strategically, manage projects, lead teams, and think globally. Employees who are knowledgeable about intellectual property, regulatory strategy, and legal issues can facilitate better decision-making throughout the innovation and design processes. With upfront thinking about these issues, it is much more likely that full advantage will be given to the entrepreneurial efforts of a client or firm.

But the broader involvement of engineers in management and commercialization activities creates new issues for the profession. These include ethical dilemmas that can arise when professionals with different expertise come together to solve problems. These dilemmas include whistleblowing, product safety, distribution and access, testing, compliance, environmental impact, due diligence, and regulatory influence.

These issues can be quite complex, and engineers may not always be sure how to handle them. That’s why IEEE is holding its first conference that addresses such issues. The IEEE International Symposium on Ethics in Science, Technology and Engineering will be held on 23 and 24 May at the Chicago Marriott O’Hare Hotel. It will have panel discussions on topics such as nuclear energy, biomedical engineering, and responsible innovation in research. Workshops will cover assessing outcomes; ethics, technology, and the engineer; and professional issues in the technical curriculum.

NEW MASTER’S DEGREE PROGRAMA related issue facing the engineering profession is an increased demand for those with broader knowledge and different skill sets beyond just technical skills. While engineers are always learning on the job, few have the opportunity to focus on deepening their knowledge and skills. This may explain why so many employers say that they cannot find employees with the full skill sets they are looking for. 

Academia has taken notice, and various universities have developed new programs designed to give engineers the skills today’s employers demand. One such program is from the law school at Northwestern University, in Chicago. The Masters of Science in Law (MSL) is designed especially for engineers who want to learn more about intellectual property, regulation and regulatory analysis, and business/entrepreneurship. The MSL program is now accepting applications for its first class in September. The program can be completed in one academic year by going full-time or could take up to four years by going part-time.  

While the MSL is housed in the law school, it is not a lawyer-training program. Its sole focus is on training engineers and scientists. The MSL combines the most salient aspects of both law and business curricula into a practical, hands-on curriculum. Classes will be in areas such as intellectual property transactions, intellectual property valuation, written and oral communication, business formation, regulatory strategies, innovation policy and ethics, patent prosecution, information privacy and security, contracts and licensing, and entrepreneurial finance and venture capital.

Another challenge facing entrepreneurs and those innovating within large companies is determining when legal rules and administrative regulations are a constraint and when they are an opportunity. The MSL is designed to help its students assess these legal and regulatory situations and develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing them.  Numerous situations demonstrate that these strategic decisions can make or break a business opportunity. These include trademark issues involving Apple’s iPhone; a variety of business and legal issues involving car-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft as well as how these apps impact the business of traditional taxis; Tesla’s battle with U.S. regulators surrounding the car dealership structure; patent infringement suits involving every major tech manufacturer; DNA testing service 23andMe’s legal problems with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and on and on. Understanding the entire “innovation landscape” and its tremendous challenges and exciting opportunities is a necessary condition for success in the marketplace. 

Ultimately, engineers who receive this training will bring more knowledge to their employers. These multi-talented engineers will differentiate themselves in the marketplace and will be well prepared for a variety of positions, including those in management. 

Both the upcoming IEEE ethics symposium and the new MSL program at Northwestern Law School are programs that respond to the changing role of the modern engineer and scientist in a global economy.

blogWerwath Photo: Mark Werwath

Mark Werwath, a certified Project Management Professional, has been an engineering project manager for 25 years. He has managed complex system (software) and product development, IT, manufacturing and radio network system implementation projects in four continents. Werwath has been on the board of governors of the IEEE Technology Management Council (formerly the IEEE Engineering Management Society) from 2004-2007 and is currently the director of the Master of Engineering Management Program at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

blogHoward Photo: Howard Wolfman

Howard Wolfman is an IEEE life senior member and the principal of Lumispec Consulting, specializing in energy efficient lighting. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is active in IEEE, CSA, and ANSI standards work, as well as serving as the treasurer of the IEEE Awards Board. Wolfman is also a member of the IEEE Ethics Organizing Committee.

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