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How Engineers Can Fight Back

As outsourcing turns a once-secure career option into a roll of the dice, it’s time for engineers to lose their political inhibitions.

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.

Clearly, historical forces are in motion that are difficult for us to comprehend and impossible for individual engineers to control. An engineering degree is no longer a ticket to steady, risk-free employment. Happily we have found that an engineering education provides a solid background for many different types of work, thus helping one adapt in an ever-changing world. In recent years, engineers have found themselves sought after as bankers, accountants, management consultants, and the like. So the alert and flexible engineer will still be in a favorable position to make his or her way. And there will always be some engineers who, through their wits and entrepreneurial skills, will achieve great economic success. Nevertheless, in this unpredictable and perilous environment, I would encourage young people to think of engineering less for its economic security than for its providing a livelihood doing something they enjoy. This is not a naive view of life through rose-colored glasses, but rather a practical and realistic solution to the problem of how best to choose a career. We all want work that offers an element of fun and creativity, and for some people this is to be found in engineering.

But personal choices and actions are not an adequate response to the crisis that threatens the U.S. engineering profession. The moment calls for initiatives that, for want of a better word, we must call political.

Yet engineers have traditionally been apolitical. They constitute no more than one percent of elected officials. And when they do achieve high office they too often lack the shrewdness and personality needed for success. (Consider, for example, the two engineer presidents: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.) I believe that this is not so much a question of incompetence as it is a matter of choice. And it begins early in life. It was almost bizarre how during the Vietnam years, when the nation’s college campuses were ablaze with demonstrations and dispute, the engineering students for the most part went blithely on with their studies.

To a certain extent, this attitude is healthy for the engineering profession and for society as a whole. We wouldn’t have become the leading technological power in the world if our engineers had spent all their time marching and giving speeches. But in the present situation, we must reconsider our priorities. Most thinking people have come to agree that it is not acceptable to allow the forces of globalization and free trade to operate without constraint. In the resulting outburst of activities by diverse groups, engineers must take their rightful place.

In a series of essays, Russel C. Jones, past dean, university president, and executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, along with professor Bethany S. Oberst, have proposed that the engineering profession address the problem by recognizing companies for meritorious employment practices, and steering engineers away from companies that treat their employees in a nonprofessional way. In this endeavor, they suggest, the major U.S. engineering societies are the only voices that can effectively take on this task on behalf of the profession.

These organizations could not only take the lead in urging meritorious employment practices, but also in lobbying in Washington, and generally working to protect the interests of the engineering profession. Unfortunately, less than half of U.S. engineers are members of any professional society. Also, only a small percentage bother to obtain state licenses-mostly civil engineers who require such credentials to obtain approvals of plans from local government agencies. The organizational and credentialing traditions that are so well established in other professions-notably medicine and law-are not available to serve the American engineer in this hour of need.

If effective action is not taken, the exploitation and disillusionment of engineers will increase, and-one must say it in hushed tones since most engineering leaders consider the notion unethical-some engineers will inevitably give serious thought to joining labor unions. In January 2000, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, representing more than 22,000 engineers, scientists, and professional employees at Boeing, joined with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in calling a six-week strike against Boeing. At issue: benefits, wages, and a voice in company affairs. The event captured the attention of many engineers in many lines of work.

I hope that the current difficulties concerning outsourcing and visas will be mitigated through a combination of good sense, good will, and wholesome political contention. But we can see that similar problems will have to be dealt with again and again into the indefinite future. Engineers will have no choice but to confront these dilemmas, mainly by group action. However, individual efforts will also play an important role. These will include such obvious activities as using one’s voting rights diligently and with intelligence. And there are also many other important but less obvious activities-such as writing angry letters to The Wall Street Journal.

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