01 February 2005
Who's afraid of the engineering field?
By Ellen Fussell
An engineer's job is changing, there's no doubt about it. And in today's work environment, engineers have proven one thing: Automation is working. Engineering teams are bringing in new technologies and using software to re-use intellectual property to automate routine work. "We've almost automated our way out of our own jobs," said Houston's president of L&M Engineering Paul Gruhn. "However, that simply creates or allows for new opportunities elsewhere."
But just who is the U.S. trying to help? Gruhn wondered about the dwindling jobs in the U.S. "I'm totally against raising the number of work visas for overseas engineers to work here. Our own engineers can't even find employment! Heck, I can't find employment!"
Gruhn isn't the only one lamenting the loss of jobs in the U.S. In fact, a study by RuleStream Research showed, due to the nation's shrinking engineering labor force, fewer engineers will be responsible for more products. In that light, training, apprenticeship, and mentorship opportunities will subside as engineers get more responsibility.
Jim Pinto, industry pundit and founder of Action Instruments, agrees that automation, not merely outsourcing, is the cause of job loss in the U.S. "Something like 300,000 to 400,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. due to outsourcing while 2 million jobs were lost because of automation," Pinto said. "But the point is it's a fact of life."
Early last year, the president's National Science Board reported the number of U.S. citizens qualified for science and engineering jobs will probably not rise in the near future. Yet the board also noted a decline in the supply of qualified foreign nationals, either because of immigration limits or overseas demand. And as retirement age engineers are stepping down, manufacturers need to transfer their knowledge to the new, albeit scarce, regime.
Getting that knowledge isn't as easy as it sounds, but it's still crucial. "Many things available today didn't exist five years ago. Somebody had to engineer them. However, it's difficult to gain the expertise and knowledge needed for those new opportunities," Gruhn said. "It's hard enough just to stay current in your own field. When a 50-year-old engineer is laid off in one area, he may not have the background (or ability) needed to change specialties. An engineer can't practice with 30-year-old knowledge any more than a doctor can. Learn, change, or die."
To remedy the situation, Gruhn keeps an eye on employment ads. "There seems to be no shortage of positions available," he said. "However, the experience and background requested for most positions surprises me. I sometimes wonder if the number of people who meet the requirements (in the entire country) could be counted on one hand. It's like companies don't want to invest the time or expense to train anyone. They feel they can simply pluck people from somewhere else."
Pinto also blames part of the engineering decline on the soullessness of these big companies. "It's not any fun working for a big company any more," Pinto said. "They're run too run like a machine without a soul. It used to be you were proud of working for IBM, but they're reoriented." Pinto said the resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit is one reason for the engineering decline.
"I can certainly understand the reluctance of many to join the field when they see how many engineers are being laid off, and how many engineering jobs are going overseas," Gruhn said. "However, considering how many engineers have simply left the field after being laid off, I think we have a surplus of engineers.
Return to Previous Page