Others beating U.S. in engineering|[08/27/2008]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The things that keep Bill Marcuson awake nights won’t go away by counting sheep.

The director emeritus of the geotechnical laboratory at Vicksburg’s U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Dr. William F. “Bill” Marcuson III, told a luncheon group Tuesday that he wants to see America’s young engineers properly prepared to compete on an increasingly global scale. Marcuson is also immediate past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the national organization that works to increase professional standards and performance and nurture the science of engineering.

“The bottom line is there are more and more civil engineers in developing countries and they are improving their technical qualifications,” he said. “Currently, U.S. engineers cost five to 10 times what they cost in India and China.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

In his remarks to the Vicksburg chapter of the Society of American Military Engineers, a talk he called “Things That Keep Me Awake at Night,” Marcuson mined the topic’s humor possibilities only for a moment as he began his speech, which centered on critical aspects of American engineering competitiveness.

Using the example of telephone operators who are now obsolete, Marcuson said, “Unless we act quickly we’ll know exactly what those telephone operators are doing now.”

Marcuson cited statistics reflecting increasing numbers of foreign engineers willing to work for much lower salaries than their American counterparts, as well as low rates of U.S. companies applying for patents; research and development investment by U.S. companies that runs less than litigation costs; a negative shift in the U.S. trade balance of high technology manufactured goods since 1990, from plus $33 billion in 1990 to negative $24 billion in 2004; and math and science test scores among U.S. 12th-graders that are below the international average of more than 20 countries.

“I see civil engineering students as our future,” Marcuson said “I see helping young civil engineers to develop as investing in our future. If you don’t, there is no future.”

What is most needed, he said, is to emphasize education and the development of leadership skills. He cited military training as the model to be emulated: education followed by on-the-job-experience followed by more education followed by more experience.

“What will set the American engineer apart will be leadership,” he said. “It’s critical. U.S. civil engineers must be prepared.”

Whether civil engineers will be leaders or technicians must not be decided on the basis of salaries, Marcuson said. “It has to be won on a leadership basis. Civil engineers can engineer their future or others will engineer it for them. I strongly endorse the former.”

Marcuson joined the ERDC in 1970, at that time called Waterways Experiment Station. He directed the geotechnical laboratory there from 1981 until his retirement in 2000. He has written more than 100 publications, received many awards and honors and currently serves as a consultant on geotechnical issues to many national and international organizations.

Also present at the luncheon was retired Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, who spoke briefly in support of the proposed mural honoring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its role in the historic 1927 flood. The mural is expected to join others on the floodwall at City Front as a multiyear project to decorate and improve the city’s landing on the Yazoo Diversion Canal.