Researching “What Do Engineers Do All Day?: Innovation, Maintenance, and Everyday Engineering.”

This post is by The Maintainers Co-Director Lee Vinsel.

A couple of weeks ago I heard that joyful news that my Virginia Tech colleagues Jenni Case, Marie Paretti, and I were awarded a grant from the Institute for Society, Culture, and the Environment for a research project titled, “What Do Engineers Do All Day?: Innovation, Maintenance, and Everyday Engineering.” (If you’re interested in details, you can download an extract from our proposal here.)

This grant comes at a propitious moment for my work and the work of The Maintainers network more broadly. Andy Russell and I have always emphasized that our thinking builds on previous work in several fields, including that of historians like Ruth Cowan and David Edgerton, scholars of science and technology studies like Chris Henke, Steve Jackson, Lara Houston, David Pontille, and Jerome Denis, even artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Put another way, The Maintainers is not an innovation.

At the same time, it’s only after nearly five years of work that deep research questions about maintenance and repair are really becoming clear to us in domains like public infrastructure, private and domestic maintenance, and Right-to-Repair. The trick now is to think methodologically about how to answer these questions. We see one goal of our support from the Sloan Foundation to be aggregating research questions and fostering communities to answer them. The really hard work is just beginning.

“What Do Engineers Do All Day?” is a good example of such a research question worth pursuing. In Shock of the Old, David Edgerton – drawing on Swedish historian Svante Lindqvist, I think – points to a survey of professional engineers conducted in Sweden in 1980. The survey unveiled that about 70% percent of engineers worked in operations and maintenance. This finding has huge potential ramifications for engineering education in the United States and around the globe, more and more of which is aimed at training engineering students in innovation and entrepreneurship, even though most engineering graduates will not focus on innovation (or even design) in their work and even fewer still will ever become entrepreneurs.

Yet, it’s a bad idea to generalize from a single study conducted in a single small nation nearly forty years ago! In short, we lack a good and more up-to-date answer to the question, “What do engineers do all day?” (Richard Scarry’s Busytown books, including What Do People Do All Day?, is an inspiration generally for some of our Maintainers work, but even more so because of the sociologist John Levi Martin’s essay, “What Do Animals Do All Day?” which finds a statistical correlation with certain animals and certain statuses of jobs, with the lowly pig doing much of the low-status blue-collar maintenance work.)

These questions provide the perfect opportunity to work with and learn from some of my stellar colleagues in VT’s Department of Engineering Education, where I am a faculty affiliate. Department head Jenni Case and Professor Marie Paretti are significant scholars – and creative methodologists – in the field of Engineering Education. Both Paretti and Case have conducted previous research that bears directly on the question of what roles engineers end up in. Paretti is currently leading a multi-institution NSF-funded study called Capstone to Work (C2W) following more than a hundred students across four institutions from the end of their engineering capstone design course through their first year of engineering work to understand how, and to what extent, the capstone course prepares engineering students for actual engineering work. C2W has amassed extensive data, including both quantitative and qualitative surveys, and semi-structured interviews with the engineering students/employees. While C2W clearly had its own questions, much of the data can be re-analyzed with questions around what engineers do in mind. Similarly, in an earlier study, Jenni Case and a co-author used a novel method of examining engineering graduates’ LinkedIn profiles to make inferences about what kinds of industries and occupational roles the graduates ended up in. This year we will conduct a similar study of Virginia Tech graduates. I’m very lucky to be able to learn from Jenni and Marie.

Most of the grant will fund the work of Engineering Education PhD student, Christopher Gewirtz. Chris has been working on the C2W with Professor Paretti and is intimately familiar with the interviews from that study. And Chris has incorporated some ideas from The Maintainers into his doctoral work. His dissertation will likely be titled something like Twelve Tales of Engineering Work: How Real Life Narratives Differ from Grand Narratives of Engineers Saving the World. Chris is also just a great guy and I look forward to working with and learning from him.
Working with my Engineering Education colleagues has also led me to read new literature, which is exciting. While preparing the grant proposal, I particularly liked reading Alice Pawley’s paper, “What Counts as ‘Engineering’: Towards a Redefinition,” which highlights how the (often maintenance-focused) work of women engineers is defined out as “not engineering.” Another paper that blew me away and has informed much of my thinking since is James Trevelyan’s and Bill Williams’ “Value Creation in the Engineering Enterprise: An Educational Perspective,” which nicely and convincingly makes the point the engineers create values in many ways, only a small fraction of which have anything to do with innovation or design.

Part, though only part, of moving beyond innovation-speak (and what I’ve come to see as its even more nefarious sibling, design-speak) will be having better empirical work to show just how inaccurate, partial, and problematic this way of talking about human life with technology really is. Scholars have already been doing this for years, especially through ethnography and history, but we must go even further, especially by drawing on social scientific methods that aren’t often found in science and technology studies. I’m really grateful to have colleagues like Jenni, Marie, and Chris to do this work with.