The balance of employment in civil engineering has moved from the public sector to the private sector. Discuss the implications for engineers in particular and society in general.
Civil Engineering is that field of engineering that is involved in the design and construction of roads, bridges, dams, buildings and other public works (civil_engineering.bluerider.com). At some point in time, public facilities were the responsibility of the authority. The authority could have been the kingdom or a government. That is why civil engineers have traditionally been employed principally by the public sector. Everything was run by the government. So everything must be provided and constructed by the same government.
However, the field of engineering grew wider and wider over the years. The requirements of the public grew with the population and standard of living. This put increasing pressure on the government. At some point, it was difficult for the government to keep pace with the growing needs and aspirations of the nation. To meet those needs, more buildings and facilities had to be constructed and faster. That was only possible if an increasing number of civil engineers are employed. Managing that growing number of engineers would become taxing on a central government if it did not have a means of sharing that responsibility with the industrial world. At the same time, as the standard of living increased and industrialisation took place, a growing number of facilities were required by individual group of people such as factory owners. These factory owners were willing to pay an individual or a private company to build its factory provided it could build it to his requirements and in time. That is how civil engineers and other related workers started being employed by the private-run companies for private needs. Today, with an economy of this size, the government can only trace the general strategy of development. It cannot go into the details of what should be built for each individual. Construction sector therefore has become a primarily private trade where the buyers and the sellers are private. The government needs to employ just enough to regulate and control the standards.
The repercussions of this drift from the public to the private sector are numerous for the engineer. The first and most important of all is the status and image of the engineer. Despite the fact that the job of the engineer has become increasingly difficult, the image and recognition of the engineer for the rest of the society has declined over the years. Teachers, doctors and lawyers are looked upon as noble professions because they are seen to serve the public interest directly. Engineers are no longer seen that way because they serve a client base that is private. So the modern engineer does not benefit the same respect of the public as his ancient counterpart.
From the society’s point of view, the engineer is a less trust-worthy person today because he is not directly controlled by the government. He is perceived as somebody who is working for money, and not somebody who is working in public service. Consequently, the pubic works are likely to be less reliable. The public eventually has to accept what is offered to him because he does not have a choice. There is no alternative on offer.
The engineer today has the possibility of getting a higher salary than before. Because he is paid according to the service he dispenses, the more he works or the better quality of work he delivers, the more he is likely to be paid. That is compared to the fact that as a government worker, the engineer would have received the same pay whether he builds one building or ten. However, this also means that the salary will be set by the market. One of the complaints of engineers today is that their salary does not reflect the level of work they perform. At a company level, it is easier to assign a share of the profit to a salesman because he has contributed to a certain amount of turnover. A manager can be associated with the amount of money his department or branch has made. But it is much more difficult to quantify the economic worth of an engineer because his output cannot be measured directly in monetary terms. That is why that despite the fact that the change from public to private sector gives the possibility for a better pay, that possibility is not materialised in reality for the majority of engineers today.
Governments are run by politicians and politicians have to take account of the perception of the public before taking harsh decisions. That is why traditionally, employment in the public sector is more secure than that in private sector. The government itself cannot be seen to create unemployment. So, one of the incidence of the shift form public to private sector for the engineer is that today, his job is less secure than before.
With the development of technology and the pursuit of knowledge, the field of civil engineering has become so vast now that a civil engineer cannot possibly know everything about the field. This has led to specialisation of trade. Today, a civil engineer can be either a structural engineer or a highway engineer or a geotechnical engineer or any one of the various facets of civil engineering.
Civil engineers and civil engineering companies can be said to be more efficient today than the days when civil works were done by public sector. Privatisation of construction work has led to faster construction work because now companies have to operate in a competitive market. Competition in construction has benefited mostly to the society because now, more facilities is constructed faster, at cheaper costs, and the end product is more attractive. So, one of the repercussions on the society at large is that it has benefited from a more efficient civil engineering industry.
The implications of the shift in the balance of employment in civil engineering from the public sector to the private sector to the engineer can be summarised in terms of change in salary structure, change in image, in type of job, job security among others. For the society, it is mainly a more efficient industry but with more doubtful reliability.
. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, American Society of Civil Engineer, 1991
. Tarsh, Jason, Graduate Shortages in Science and Engineering, Department of Employment, 1985