Changes in Professional Power: The Experiences of Canadian Engineers

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:30
Oral Presentation
Tracey ADAMS, Sociology - University of Western Ontario, Canada
In recent years, researchers have explored the changing nature of professional power on a societal level, documenting declines in self-regulation, professional authority, and autonomy (Saks 2015; Abel 2003; Evetts 2002). Challenges to professional power at the societal level appear to be accompanied by changes in professional practice. New public management practices, corporatization, and demands for greater accountability, may restrict professionals’ discretionary power, although there is evidence that professionals resist such encroachments, with some degree of success (Evetts 2002; Coburn 1994; Waring and Currie 2009). Nonetheless, trends in professional power at the level of practice are still unclear and under-examined. This paper explores the changing nature of professional power through a case study of the practice experiences of professional engineers working in Ontario Canada, drawing on data from a survey of 750 engineers, and follow-up in-depth interviews with 53 practitioners. First, I explore the extent of engineers’ power to shape their own work: do engineers have the ability to determine their work content, and participate in meaningful decision-making? Second, I explore whether professionals are able to use their power to protect the public. Study findings indicate that engineers report a considerable degree of decision-making authority and discretion. At the same time, many engineers report increased workloads, and pressure from employers, clients, and competitors to underbid on contracts, or do their work more quickly and cheaply. This creates ethical dilemmas: many engineers feel pressured to make decisions that could have negative implications for public safety, as their clients push for short-term economic savings, over social protections. Faced with these dilemmas, some engineers question whether they have sufficient power to protect the public. The paper concludes with some reflections on the distribution of professional power, and implications for theory and practice.