Canaries in the mineshaft: engineers in the global
Bethany S. Oberst, Ph.D.,
Russel C. Jones, Ph.D., P.E., World Expertise LLC
We need to get beyond the overheated rhetoric about the offshoring of jobs and look seriously at how engineers and the engineering profession want to live and act in society. This article outlines the current debate about the migration of jobs overseas and the dismemberment of engineering and technology jobs into commodifiable pieces. It is written so as to provide a cross-section of information sources for the reader interested in pursuing the topics further, but may also be read without attention to the footnotes.
A few years ago when concerns were being raised about the
impact of the global marketplace on the employment of US engineers, the authors
drafted a paper entitled “Are current engineering graduates being treated as
commodities by employers?” 
We questioned whether engineering in the
Since that paper was first drafted many factors have rapidly converged and conspired to change both the world and the discussion about the dynamics of engineering employment:
the world economy remains fragile and volatile, but increasingly
integrated across national borders; 
· cheap, instantaneous global communication has made international markets and an international workforce a functioning reality; 
huge pressure for
profits has resulted in US industry engaging in out-sourcing by off-shoring
significant numbers of technical jobs, while at the same time demanding
increased innovation and creativity in engineering work and services at home; 
the media have made “off-shoring” the crisis du
jour, and politicians are embracing it in their campaign rhetoric; 
· threats of terrorism are world-wide and are cited as a reason for more restrictive US immigration practices which have affected the international student population and the intake of highly-skilled technical personnel; 
applications to US universities from international students, long
a mainstay of engineering enrollments at both undergraduate and graduate levels,
are deteriorating while at the same time overseas universities are stepping up
their recruiting efforts abroad and are seeing positive results; 
the much-awaited economic rebound in the
enrollment in engineering programs peaked in 1986 in the
enrollment profiles in engineering programs suggest that gender
and race remain problematic in the profession. 
morale among mid-career professional engineers is sinking, what
with salary compression and employment instability; 
Each of the above factors has added to the complexity of
the issues surrounding workforce dynamics for engineers, and provoked intense
interest in those concerned with the overall economic future of the
A pressure for profit has always characterized business,
but it was in the decade of the 1990s that we witnessed enormous expectations
placed on every business to make spectacular returns on a quarterly basis.
The waves of mergers, IPOs, acquisitions, high entry salaries and
Hollywood-style CEOs made continued profits seem the norm.
And the pressures found ready targets in well-placed decision makers who
acquired a taste for high living and risky, sometimes outright illegal,
strategies. Despite a couple of
hundred years of accumulated legislation and regulatory codes,
Now as the US slowly pulls out of recession, the same
urgency to ensure profitability is in the hands of a new generation of business
leaders who seen as eager as their predecessors to see a rise in stock prices
and return to the paradise of the 90s. Since
the biggest investment of most companies is in personnel, this has meant turning
more aggressively to outsourcing and off-shoring to reduce production and
service costs. Profiting from
several of generations of students graduated from excellent engineering programs
If the globally interconnected workforce is a reality from
now forward, what should engineers, who are among the first professionals to be
so deeply affected, do to shape that workplace to their needs?
And what should be the engineering profession’s reaction to the
deconstruction of engineering work?
Rather than summarizing the flood of pieces that have been
published in the past year on the phenomenon known as “off-shoring,” in this
section we will step back and articulate threads that have been running through
the discussion. We will keep in mind
that our readers are primarily engineering educators: in return, we ask that our
readers keep in mind that the subject of off-shoring has been disproportionately
shaped by the media and by political rhetoric, all playing against the
background of the up-coming
(1) Engineering is arguably the first profession in the
(2) The numbers of US high-tech jobs that have to date been sent off-shore still remain elusive,  but they may ultimately be less interesting than the prospect that segmentation of functions and dislocation of work sites are the waves of the future for engineers.
(3) The optimistic view of offshoring is that it actually
generates economic benefits in the
(5) Since the off-shoring phenomenon is relatively recent
in its present guise, there is a lack of information about the locations where
the off-shored jobs are being placed. This
includes issues are diverse as the quality of the infrastructure supporting
employment centers, reciprocal trade agreements, skills training, worker safety,
continuing education, all of which can help us understand the nature of the
off-shoring dynamic, better predict its future and consequences, and map out
strategies in response.
(6) Even while admitting that off-shoring is likely to
become a permanent feature of the globalized economy, there is room to believe
that very special conditions – not easily or quickly replicated –
permitted India to become a prominent world-center for a number of
IT related activities. 
So a thoughtful approach to how to
respond – but one with prompt deadlines for decision-making – would make
(7) Engineering educators should not be surprised by the
emergence and growth of off-shoring. For decades US colleges of engineering have
been graduating excellent students from
(8) Calls for internationalizing the engineering
curriculum, including providing all students with structured experience in
managing both electronic and face-to-face cross-cultural contacts, now become
even more compelling in light of these developments. 
(9) Many people are now calling for managing the globalized
economy, realizing that it will not manage itself.
Management instruments can range from passage of protective trade
to name calling (e.g. “Benedict Arnold CEOs”) .
The burden of managing the new engineering workforce dynamics that are emerging
from globalization is not the sole responsibility of higher education.
Engineering educators, however, are experienced professionals who have a
realistic understanding of the place of engineering in world development and
important things to say about the nature of the engineering enterprise and how
engineers can best be utilized.
(10) The “jobless recovery” may actually be “down-sizing” or “right-sizing” wearing a politicized label. Increased productivity is desirable but the process also requires skilled management, as we learned in the 1980s, so as to smooth out the bumps and provide needed safety nets.
(11) When education and re-training are quickly thrown out as a solution for jobs lost through off-shoring, we need to remember that many of the people who have lost these particular jobs are already highly educated. There is a vast difference between providing retraining for those with no high school degrees, and fashioning productive ways to reintegrated into the employment market someone who has a master’s degree in engineering. Even the Brookings Institution has admitted that this is a challenge which for now is beyond their radar screen. 
(12) “Today, most employees are seen as units to be stockpiled or shed as business warrants. Technology not only allows fewer people to do the jobs of many; it also allows their skills to be taught to almost anyone, quickly, anywhere around the world.” Robert Reich’s statement is a preamble to an argument against protectionist legislation, but it describes an unattractive work environment, and issues a challenge to educators to examine the balance in the current curriculum between skills and education. 
Engineering employment issues cannot be discussed today
without serious consideration of the world political scene, which has deeply
affected immigration policies in the
Today, however, immigration issues which deeply affect
engineers and engineering education in the
For US engineering educators, immigration issues have moved
from being an annual annoyance to being an important factor in enrollment and
faculty employment. With almost 30% of US doctoral degrees in science and
engineering going to foreign-born people ,
monitoring immigration laws, policies and systems needs constant attention
because of potential negative effects on the entire engineering education
enterprise in the
It is in the interests of the engineering educators, as
public leaders to participate actively in a sustained and informed discussion of
the composition and characteristics of the technical workforce needed to sustain
national and international productivity, progress and welfare. Because
immigration is a fundamental piece of the global workplace and the global
economy, it deserves considerable attention under conditions where a fair
exchange of ideas can take place. Engineers
and technical professionals are more expert than most in this area and should
lend their expertise to establishing the dialogue and defining the key issues.
It appears unlikely that the
What is the truth?
It is often frustrating to try to understand the employment
dynamics affecting engineers. Information
is frequently incomplete, and even when relatively complete, is too often
contradictory or subject to widely differing interpretation. Added
to this is the fact that within the past couple of decades there have been times
when the subject of workforce dynamics has been tainted by suspicions of bias.
In the 1980s a hue and cry was raised about the impending shortage of engineers
Here are some of the many questions which have not been
It is difficult to understand the situation without a much
better grasp on the facts and more attempt at synthesis of what we do know.
Policy makers in education, government, professional societies, funding
agencies, industry, think tanks and the media, are largely talking past each
other. The dialogue which does make
place is not sustained: at best one or two sectors gather together
intermittently to compare notes, but there has been no comprehensive look at the
multiplicity of the issues, the influencing factors and the perceived future,
and where interested parties can help shape the future of the technical
workforce and their work.
In our original article about engineers being treated as
commodities the authors put the burden on the professional associations to take
action to improve the work situation for engineers.
We proposed to use carrots, not sticks, asking the professional
associations to give positive reinforcement to companies offering engineers a
stable and productive work environment:
It appears that the issue of
‘engineer as commodity’ must be addressed directly, and soon, but who should
lead the effort? Corporations and government agencies are unlikely to address
it, given pressures for accountability and profit. Individual engineers or small
groups of them are not able to make any impact. So it is up to the engineering
professional societies – individually or as a group – to provide leadership.
Today we see the problem as more nuanced and complex and
deserving of a richer examination by a wider, interdisciplinary field of
professionals, policy makers and thinkers. For
that reason Engineering Conferences International has agreed to sponsor a major
meeting on Engineering Workforce Dynamics in early 2005, under the direction of
the authors of this paper. The
conference will bring together the CEOs, professional engineers, professional
societies, engineering educators, elected representatives, government officials,
funding agencies, members of the media, statisticians and scholars, and create a
structure for productive presentations and dialogue.
The goal will be to define the current challenges to the employment of
engineers, to begin to formulate policies to improve the dynamics of engineering
employment, to draw policy makers into a coordinated action agenda, and to
determine the role of engineering education in best attracting and preparing a
new generation of engineers for the future we see on the horizon.
Here are a few of the themes to be explored in the
What new paradigms
are being offered for the increasingly globalized workplace and workforce, and
how do engineers and engineering stand to fare under each?
What truth is there to the claim that the
Should protective trade, immigration and monetary policies be
crafted to stem the tides of change?
· Should Sputnik II-type incentives be used to induce more US students to undertake engineering as a profession?
What would be the benefits of a government funded program aimed at
re-training fully-credentialed engineers, and facilitating their re-integration
into the most active and productive tiers of employment?
Is it possible to
converge on a unified paradigm for better utilizing engineering capacity in a
Who are the stakeholders in the creation of such a paradigm?
What is the role of other developed nations, themselves undergoing
similar strains, in the formation of a unified paradigm?
What needs to change in order to realize a new employment paradigm? How
can the transitions be managed?
What role do the professional associations have to play in shaping
the engineering workforce?
How should engineers be educated in the future, for initial
practice and for continuing professional development?
Where does ABET fit into managing a transition, both in the
What role might unions, traditional players in negotiating
workplace and workforce issues, have in the discussion of solutions?
Is there a future for global accreditation and licensure?
What are the responsibilities of industry to address workforce
dynamics, including quality of life issues?
Should engineering be re-defined to reflect the more extensive
involvement of engineers outside of technical specialties, in policy
formulation, executive management, elected positions?
Given that what
happens to engineers and the technical workforce may well set the tone for the
work environment of future generations of many professions, who are the best
trusted and most credible advocates for the engineering profession?
What useful alliances might be forged between the engineering
profession and other professions challenged by applications of technology and
rapidly changing working conditions, for example, medicine?
What are the best ways of making the debate heard at policy making
All these plans for the future are posited on the belief
that engineers are key players in the continuing economic, social, and political
progress of the world and in the stability and growth of the
Just as the medical profession moved doctors away from
being blood-letters, distributors of patent medicines and bone-setters, one of
the goals of engineering educators should be to see engineers placed more
centrally in decision-making circles about the central issues of the profession.
It might not be bad to aim at replacing jokes about the number of attorneys in
the US Congress with similar jokes about the over-abundance of engineers who
took their places.
If engineers and their profession are today threatened,
history tells us that it will take more than a change of CEOs, the erection of
trade barriers, or a closing of national borders to correct that.
Globalization has its positive and negative elements: one of those
negative elements is its tendency to be demonized as an all powerful force
poised to take over every aspect of our lives starting with our jobs.
Of course it will, if we let it happen.
Our challenge is to see globalization as just the business environment of
the 21st century, and not to abdicate to it control over the social,
educational, legal, political, economic, ethical and cultural structures that
govern the way we want to live and work. For
those, we must take individual and collective professional responsibility and
Jones, Russel C., and Oberst, Bethany S. European
Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2003, pp. 395-402.
Bhagwati, Jagdish H., In Defense of
Gongloff, Mark. “Outsourcing: what to do?” CNN
Association of American Universities, letter from higher education
organizations to the Honorable Sherwood Boehlert and the Honorable Bart
Gordon, US House Committee on Science, February 25, 2004, available at http://www.aau.edu/resources/Ltr2.25.04.pdf.
See for example, this report from Mark Schweitzer, an economist with the
Federal Reserve Bank of
Davis, Lance A., and Gibbins, Robin D, eds. “Raising Public Awareness of
“Raising Public Awareness,” NAE.
See Merten quote above, and Reich quote in note 22.
The Brookings Institution, “Preparing America to Compete Globally: A Forum
“Holyrood commissions inquiry into call centre jobs offshoring,” Karl
West, city editor, The Herald,
Friedman, Thomas. “The Great Indian Dream.” The
New York Times.
Bartlett, Thomas. « Fewer
Foreigners Go Home After Earning
McGraw, Dan. “My Job Lives Over the Ocean,” and “Putting it into
Perspective,” Prism. December
2003, Vol. 13, No. 4, and January 2004, Vol. 13, No. 5.
Schneider, Greg. “Anxious About Outsourcing: States Try to Stop
Mehlman, Bruce P. “Offshore Outsourcing and the Future of American
Competitiveness.” This report was presented in several locations in 2003
by Mr. Mehlman, Assistant Secretary of Technology Policy at the US
Department of Commerce. See http://www.technology.gov/Speeches/BPM_2003-Outsourcing.pdf.
“The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America’s
Potential,” National Science Board. National Science Foundation,
Tilghman, Shirley M. “Testimony before the
See the work in progress at the National Bureau of Economic Research,
Science and Engineering Workforce Project,
Two examples, one well-known (Dell), one lesser-known (SafeHarbor
Technology). Brewin, Bob.
“Dell Sends PC Support to the States.” PCWorld,
One of the most often quoted reports on this subject is a study done
by Hewitt Associates and released in March 2004.
In it the authors point out that many companies are not reaping the
savings they thought they would through offshoring.
“Most Siemens Software Jobs Moving East,” The
New York Times,
 “Are current engineering graduates being treated as commodities by employers?”
S. Oberst is
James Madison Distinguished Professor at
C. Jones is
a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer services
in engineering education in the international arena. Prior to that, he had a
long career in education: faculty member at MIT, department chair in civil