Speech is at federal engineers award ceremony
In a world consumed by fantastic fads and tenuous trends, it is worth the occasional reminder that principles matter. This month that message comes from outgoing NRC commissioner Dale Klein.
Klein is one of those people for whom the phrase “honor before elegance” seems to fit. Now I’ve never heard him say this nor do I have any idea he would agree with this metaphor. It seems to me it works.
Klein’s remarks discuss two obligations for engineers – service and professionalism. He tells his audience in this speech that government service is a calling which is not appreciated.
Note that this year’s winner of the award is from the U.S. Department of Interior. That’s one of the things that makes this speech noteworthy. How many agency senior officials would show up for an event like this with no one from their agency sharing the center stage limelight?
How many engineers?
Of the 96,000 federally employed engineers identified by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 28 were nominated for this award and only one of 10 finalists was selected for the award. It is a crowning achievement for the award winner and the federal agency or military branch the engineer represents.
The nominated engineers are evaluated based on factors such as engineering achievements, education, professional and technical society activities, awards and honors, and civic and humanitarian activities.
Here's some highlights of what Klein had to say.
“...a good engineer and a good public servant means more than just technical skill. Let me repeat something my friend Ed McGaffigan [NYT profile] (right) said, about a year before he died. Ed spoke these words to some young incoming employees to the NRC. But they apply equally well to anyone considering public service in general… or for that matter, life in general:
“If you conduct yourself with honor, with integrity, and with diligence, you will have a great career. ‘Honor’ often involves telling people, perhaps colleagues, perhaps supervisors, what they do not want to hear. “
I have throughout my career let the facts determine my position on issues. That can upset ideologues and theorists of all persuasions who do not let facts get in the way of their ideologies or their theories. And it may make you enemies. You can afford such enemies, but you can not afford to compromise your honor, your personal compass.”
These are the qualities we must all strive for. In part, because we owe it to ourselves as professionals. But also because whether or not we do our jobs well, and set high standards for ourselves, can have very far-reaching consequences.
Support for engineering schools & societies
To the senior leadership in this room I want to say that it seems to me all of us need to do two things to maintain that heritage and a high level of engineering excellence in federal service. First, we need to support the institutions that “feed” future engineering needs – especially schools and engineering societies.
An old Chinese proverb says: “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”
I am a professor and will soon be returning to academia in Texas. I plan to make strengthening the connection between academia and public service one of my goals. But even those of you not in academia can help encourage the next generation by supporting engineering societies, such as this one… and by sponsoring and mentoring young people.
The second thing we can do is to promote high engineering standards in the government by providing personal examples of excellence in our own behavior and conduct. We can work on cultivating the qualities that Ed talked about and exemplified: honor, a unwavering devotion to the truth, and a willingness to do the right thing, even when the price seems high. By cultivating these qualities, we can show by example that federal service attracts the very best.
I think that engineers contemplating public service want to know that their efforts will be recognized for its contributions to society. But they also want challenging and interesting work, and to know that they can grow and develop, both professionally and personally, in their careers.”
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The Obama administration has nominated three highly regarded individuals for seats on the NRC. Their confirmation votes are expected in the Senate. Perhaps when it comes their turn to make a speech to federal engineers in future years they’ll draw on this one for inspiration.
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