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If it’s that awesome, then pay for it

Engineers are too often unwilling to invest in their own development

This is the third in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

They say you can never have enough money. But sometimes the lack of it is dire. The question of how to fund its activities regularly plagued the IEEE Student Branch I ran. Many an initiative, some over-ambitious (the 2009 Global Student Congress that became an Asia-Pacific one, plus one Canadian), some less so, has fallen with funding not being forthcoming.

Members regularly talk about increasing benefits, and rightly so. The top recommendation from Sections Congress 2008 was an annual entitlement to IEEEXplore downloads. Countless praiseworthy initiatives have been started by enthusiastic young volunteers, particularly in Regions 8 and 10. But the drive to introduce more benefits is often without expectation of a rise in cost to members. In fact, every now and again, there is talk of lowering the cost of membership. People want more, for less.

IPENZ, whose membership fee is more than double the IEEE’s and one-and-a-half times the IET’s, seems to have resigned to accepting that engineers don’t value institutions. In Dr Andrew Cleland’s lecture to my final-year class about IPENZ, he told us to negotiate it into our employment contracts—as if he knew we wouldn’t just pay for it from our own salaries. Indeed, the practice, while not universal, isn’t uncommon in engineering firms. Most people just don’t want to pay very much for professional institutions. In the case of the IEEE, they expect to join and get things, and increasingly more things, for free.

We can still live if lunch isn’t free
The Student Branch I chaired for two years was as guilty of this as any other. When I took office, we ran all of our events for free, providing free food to attendees courtesy of the Section budget. Some of our events weren’t even restricted to members. Then, on two occasions, we started to charge members to cover costs. They were more willing than we imagined.

The first was a field trip, where a nominal charge for a chartered bus covered the entire cost incurred. The second was the IEEEXtreme competition, where we offered competitors access to bulk meal orders. These are admittedly modest examples (people would have needed to get their own food anyway). But they show it’s not unthinkable.

Asking attendees to fund their own trips from Auckland to Melbourne for the inaugural IEEE Australia and New Zealand Student Congress in full was a bit of a long call. But the subsidy we negotiated for the eight attendees (seven of whom were volunteers) covered less than half the cost of the trip. Attendees realised that we, too, were beneficiaries of our travel.

People from other Sections balked when we told them that. Some continued to balk when I suggested we encourage future attendees to pay for their travel too. To this day, I struggle to comprehend why. Many university students fork out the money to go to sports tournaments, development camps or holidays. They do this because they derive benefit from it—improved skills, personal development, new friends, good times. Why should engineering congresses be any different?

Toughen up and pay
There is a deeper truth that volunteers miss when they concede, “There’s not enough funding for it.” What they should be saying is, “People don’t value it enough to pay that much for it.” And they should be assessing why their idea isn’t valued: is it just not that worthwhile, or do people just need convincing that the value is worth the cost?

The free-lunch culture limits what the institution can do for its members with more than just events involving travel. Local units are often reliant on volunteer speakers to give up their time—or to see some intangible benefit, like “exposure”—to help their members. I would bet anything that more speakers would come if we paid them to help make us better professionals.

Engineering is a middle-class profession. People who enter it are (mostly) brainy, work hard and are paid (and expect to be paid) well above the average wage from day one. It shouldn’t be a tall ask for them to invest in their own professional development. The annual membership fee is part of it, but not enough for a proliferation of initiatives—it doesn’t make sense for a US$141 fee (or US$27 for students) to result in free travel across the country (or world). The system won’t work if we spend beyond our means.

It might be that engineers really don’t see value in professional development, and that this is all a waste of time, but I doubt it. Almost every engineer and engineering student, and certainly every volunteer, will tell you that they want to develop communication and leadership skills, broaden their networks and further their technical abilities. They see, or at least claim to see value—but are too used to expecting others to cover the costs of that value for them. This is not a sustainable model. Engineers should stop expecting things to happen for them, and start buying into their profession. Literally.

This is the third in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

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