The Importance of ET Advocacy
Meetings with policymakers or their staff are valuable ways for engineering technology educators to promote the benefits of the discipline and ensure it is incorporated into legislative work.
By Scott Dunning
When is the last time you met with your state representatives or federal congressional staff to brief them on the impactful work you are doing? If your answer is “not in the last five years,” you are likely in the majority. It is not uncommon for faculty to be absorbed in their work or uncomfortable “tooting their own horn” to people outside of their profession. However, failure to showcase our efforts can hinder policymakers’ understanding of our benefits to the public. This is especially important for engineering technology educators, because people outside of engineering do not understand our unique approach to education. Advocacy can encourage legislators to consider engineering technology when developing federal policies and programs and clarify how engineering technology education can be leveraged to support economic growth.
Over the past few years, ASEE’s Engineering Technology Council scheduled visits to congressional offices and federal agencies to promote the role of engineering technology as part of the overall engineering workforce. This complements similar work by the Engineering Deans Council. Since 2017, ASEE has worked with Lewis-Burke Associates, a government relations firm focused on assisting higher education institutions and other research and education organizations, to ramp up the organization’s advocacy and presence in Washington, D.C. The goals, according to a recent Lewis-Burke presentation: protect engineering and engineering technology education; promote the inclusion of ET in education and workforce development bills through targeted “asks”; ensure the engineering technology and engineering communities have voices in policy discussions; and support grassroots efforts to engage members.
While the pandemic has limited in-person meetings, virtual meetings are proving highly effective. They can allow inclusion of stakeholders such as industry partners who might not be available for in-person meetings. If you are interested in meeting with congressional staff to advocate for your work, your institution, or for engineering technology education as a profession, lessons learned from our advocacy efforts may be helpful.
Before contacting a federal office to request a meeting, be sure you are clear about the purpose of your visit. Will you be making a specific “ask,” or is the goal to educate the individual about your work? Have you checked with your home institution on any concerns about your visit? While you are within your rights to meet with congressional staff as a private citizen, if the visit involves your institution, they may wish to be informed about its purpose. If your institution works with a government relations firm, they may also be able to help you identify the key players and even set up the meeting for you; otherwise, don’t be afraid to ask the congressional office staff who would be the best person for you to meet. Remember, the staffers carry vast policy responsibilities; while it may be nice to meet with the senator or representative, meeting with the staff will likely be more efficient.
To make the most of the visit, plan to present information that is relevant to the staff members. In addition, prepare a brief summary to leave behind. A one-page sheet with bullet points emphasizing the key points of your message can be valuable. It may be a few weeks until the staffer looks back on your visit, and having a quick outline in their files may increase the effectiveness of your presentation.
During the meeting, first thank staff members for their time and then get right to the point. If you are advocating for your institution’s engineering technology programs, emphasize the solutions you provide for meeting state or local workforce needs. Share brief anecdotes from work you are doing or success stories from students or alumni. If you need specific support, emphasize how the work can benefit constituents prior to making the request. Remember that representatives receive countless support requests, so you must demonstrate why yours deserves special consideration. Finally, offer your assistance in working with their office. Encourage the office to consider your topic, institution, etc. when developing legislation. Offer to provide additional information on policies or programs discussed during your visit.
Thank the staff again for their time and follow up with a courtesy e-mail. Small gestures can carry significant weight. With one visit completed, keep in touch and begin planning for a future visit. If we want our government to represent our interests, we must effectively advocate for our work, our institutions, and our profession as a whole.
Scott Dunning is the immediate past chair of the ASEE Engineering Technology Council. He is the director of the undergraduate education program in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.