President’s Update #8: December 13, 2021


Our Noble Profession
By: Tom Blackburn, PE, GE, F. ASCE, F. ACEC
GBA President

When I was in college, I wasn’t a serious student until I took my first geotechnical engineering course. I loved it. It reminded me of fishing (which I also love) – you can’t see below the water, so you must make educated guesses about where the structure and fish might hang out. Soil engineering is similar. You need to make educated guesses about what’s underground. I have never regretted my choice to specialize in soil engineering. My dad wanted me to be a contractor, but I never was comfortable with that role.

Unfortunately, I routinely run across civil engineering professionals that bemoan our profession and steer their kids away from it. When I ask them why, they roll their eyes at me like, are you kidding – don’t you know? When I dig deeper, they sometimes mention the hard work, high risk and low recognition. I then ask them what they’d rather do? Most don’t have an answer, some just want to retire wealthy, some are just unhappy people.

Civil engineering seems to attract geeks. Many of us can geek out on a juicy project. Many of our GBA colleagues are leaders in their organizations – sometimes referred to as mucky mucks by my long-time field technician buddy. So, GBA members are not really a good litmus test for the profession. But those folks in the office cubes (or maybe at home now I guess), are a good test. If we care about their development and general happiness, we should ask them if they’re happy and help them if we can.

   About 35-years ago, when I started working as a young geotechnical engineer, I marveled at my fellow professionals and our profession at large. I have always thought that our profession is honorable and important. In other countries, civil engineers are treated as top professionals. The things we’re involved in make the country and society better. And we get challenged along the way, which makes us think deeply, research deeply, run calculations, design the solutions and sometimes see it built. When we’re finished, we get   to stand back and admire the project. No one can take that away from us. We’ll always know – no matter whose name they put on it. The days go by fast and are rewarding.

One of my favorite professors at UC Berkeley said that there are other noble professions, but Civil Engineering is the most noble of all. He believes that our quiet societal contributions set us apart from other professions.

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States, and mining engineer put it well: 
“The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope that the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny that he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned. That is the phantasmagoria that haunts his nights and dogs his days.  He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitably appear to jolt its smooth consummation. On the other hand, unlike the doctor his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope. No doubt as years go by people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts his name on it. Or they credit to some promoter who used other people’s money with which to finance it. But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professions may know. And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants.”

It may sound corny, but President Hoover’s words give me goosebumps. I’m proud of our profession and I hope you are too. If you are proud, let someone know about it.