Twelve Tales of Engineering in the "Real World:" Narratives of Newcomers' Agency in Transitions to Engineering Work
Reports that call for change in engineering education date back to the Mann report (1918), but more recent reports like "The Engineer of 2020" (NAE, 2004), and "Lean Engineering Education," (Flumerfelt et al., 2015) describe the need for engineers who are creative leaders, who have sustainability and ethics skills. Two narrative threads emerge from these reports: that engineering education does not adequately prepare engineers with the skills needed for industry, and that preparation for industry is imperative in order to address problems in society. However, these threads conflict with research from engineering education, science and technology studies, and higher education. There may not be a gap between school and work (Modestino, Shoag and Balance, 2016), and if there is one, it might be a socio-cultural gap that is unreasonable for universities to accept the full responsibility of narrowing. More problematic is that establishing "preparation-for-work" as the purpose for education threatens the goal of preparing students for life outside of work and does not necessarily prepare them to act towards benefit for society.
The goal of this study was to critique these narratives using narratives of newcomer engineers' lived experiences. I had two research questions: 1) Who are new engineers asked to be at work? 2) Who do new engineers choose to be in response? I answered these by constructing and analyzing narratives of 12 newcomer engineers, based on interviews collected as part of the Capstone to Work study (Paretti et al., 2021). Using the figured worlds framework of identity development (Holland et al., 1998), I investigated the structures of work, which constrained who newcomers could become, and newcomers' agency, which they used to improvise identities within those constraints.
The structures of engineering work that I examined required newcomers to acclimate to ongoing practices at their companies, which did not conform to newcomers' expectations of creative engineering work. Newcomers were objectified: their value and identity was often defined in terms of how much money they made for their company. They were alienated: their engineering problems were rarely defined in terms of their societal impact. The faced sexism: they were denied respectable identities based on gender. In response, some newcomers sought the identity of "asset" for their companies. Other newcomers sought new jobs that would give them opportunities for creativity, growth or societal benefit. And some newcomers worked to create opportunities at their jobs to be who they wanted: leaders, engineers working for environmental benefit, whole persons outside and inside of work.
The results of this study suggest limitations of preparation narratives: They do not account for objectification, alienation, and sexism that newcomers face. Engineers also may unfortunately be prepared with stereotypes that do not match the realities of engineering work. This study suggests that we need to educate engineers in a way that recognizes them as human and prepares them for these realities. It also shows us that socio-technical change requires change at the structural level and cannot be limited to changes in education.