Last summer an article appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “As We Lose Engineers, Who Will Take Us Into the Future?” The piece reported that leaders of industry were increasingly concerned about the low number of engineering graduates. It seems that U.S. engineering schools are failing to evoke enthusiasm for the profession among students, and that as older engineers retire there will not be an adequate supply of talented young people to take their place. Since engineering is crucial to our society’s well-being, the article concluded, “CEOs aren’t the only ones who should be worried about the decline in engineering grads.”Hear, hear! How often have I voiced these very concerns in discussion and in print. How often have I shared with fellow engineers expressions of frustration. Our tremendously important profession does not appeal to enough of our best and brightest youngsters-our ingenious creators, our entrepreneurs and idealists, and especially our most talented women and minorities. The fault, we usually agree, lies in the harsh and demanding characteristics of engineering education; also in the failure of society to appreciate the marvelous things we engineers do, and the great satisfaction we glean from our achievements. The problem is one of public relations-an inability to communicate to others the wonders that we appreciate heart and soul.
But not so fast. A month after the appearance of the article that evoked my fervent approval, the same newspaper published a follow-up piece, by the same writer (Sharon Begley). This story-headlined “Angry Engineers Blame Shortage on Low Pay, Layoffs and Age Bias”-reported that hundreds of readers, most of them irate engineering professionals, had written to comment about the earlier column. Their complaints focused on salary stagnation, age discrimination, and the infamous boom-and-bust cycle in the field. They alleged that the periodic claims of engineer shortage are a ploy to “obtain talent on the cheap.”
This outpouring of indignation alerted me to an evolving crisis that has affected thousands of engineers. I had always known that changes in technology, and technology policy, add an element of uncertainty to many an engineering career. But past dislocations, such as those relating to armaments, aerospace, oil production, and nuclear power, were, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor. In our technological world, engineers seemed to be always in demand, and the unemployment rate for the profession was consistently much lower than the national average. The hallmark of most engineering careers was, if not wealth, at least economic security.
But suddenly, while I wasn’t looking, disaster had struck. In the first quarter of 2003, the unemployment rate for electrical engineers had soared to seven percent, a full point higher than the national average, which was itself causing alarm. And while this figure has moderated somewhat, to 5.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, the crisis has become increasingly disturbing. This is so because its origins are seen to be more profound and immutable than anything we have experienced before. The pressures of globalization and free trade have spread rapidly beyond the manufacturing sector to imperil the careers of even the most talented American engineers.
Two new phenomena have become particularly threatening: the outsourcing abroad of ever more complex intellectual work, and the importing of tens of thousands of technical workers through the granting of special visas. And lest we think that this is just a momentary crisis affecting IT people in the swiftly moving world of high tech, an article in Structural Engineer, entitled “Visas and Outsourcing,” complains that the problem is beginning to harm civil engineers.
Yet here we are, engineer crusaders, still urging young people to join our ranks, and lamenting the lack of universal enthusiasm for our cause. In addition to proclaiming our own personal ardor, we march under the banner of patriotism. Technology, we insist, is essential to national health and vitality. According to a recent report of the National Science Board (the 24-member policy advisory body of the National Science Foundation), “the federal government and its agencies must step forward to ensure the adequacy of the U.S. science and engineering workforce. All stakeholders must mobilize and initiate efforts that increase the number of US citizens pursuing science and engineering studies and careers.” The Board acknowledges “growing unemployment for scientists and engineers in some fields,” but declares that federal policy must consider primarily “the long-term opportunities and needs for the nation.”
Of course, engineering educators heartily agree. An attractive booklet issued by the American Society for Engineering Education is titled “ENGINEERING: GO FOR IT!” and subtitled, “Your Guide to an Exciting Future: Saving Lives; Cleaning Up the Environment; Launching a High-Tech Business.” And naturally, leaders of industry echo the government’s concern and share the educators’ enthusiasm: more engineers are needed. When a congressional panel meets to review the numbers of special visas to be allowed for foreign professionals and technical workers, officials from Intel and Ingersoll-Rand testify in favor of keeping the quotas high.
U.S. engineering societies have reacted by spreading the bad news in their publications, and in some cases with lobbying efforts of their own. But the response is somewhat muted, partly because engineers themselves are members of the various interest groups: government, academe, and industry-with those in industry divided between ownership, management, private consultants, and employees at varying levels of responsibility and income.
Looking out on this scene of uncertainty and apprehension. I have several observations-some general and fairly obvious, others perhaps more personal and idiosyncratic.