In my composite role as administrator of the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) and engineering educator, I am greatly concerned about the impact of outsourcing on the engineering community, both in the short term and in the very long term.
In my composite role as administrator of the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) and engineering educator, I am greatly concerned about the impact of outsourcing on the engineering community, both in the short term and in the very long term. What can we do now? What should we do soon? What must we do ultimately? I believe that education is an integral part of the answers to these questions; for the salable skills in this new world are not those that have earlier prevailed. Briefly put, there is a need for reeducation; individuals must possess new knowledge-knowledge that makes their contribution to local society special, unique and sustainable.
Interestingly, developments at ISSCC foreshadowed what is now much more obvious. Long before the recent downturn, a pent-up desire for education was identifiable among ISSCC attendees. Identifiable within this somewhat-special, highly select group was an apparent ly built-in awareness of growing change and the need to adapt through education. ISSCC executive committee members, self-designated to sense and act on attendee needs, began to make more explicit one of ISSCC's historic thrusts: the provision of continuing education. So now, along with the program itself, there is a host of relatively explicit continuing-education packages, including, quite obviously, the six to eight tutorials, the short course and four forums (formerly workshops) but also, and less obviously, the special-topic evening sessions and even the plenary-talk collection.
What motivated it-what our attendees apparently saw, and saw early in their evolving environments-is an interesting commentary on the nature of the community. But, is this relevant to the current situation? Casual observation might suggest that outsourcing is a very recent phenomenon. In some of its detail, that may be true; but at the heart of outsourcing lies a collection of corporate-management views of long and lasting significance: requirements for flexibility, adaptability, just-in-time delivery and more, all overlaid on the older idea of hiring specialists on a short-term contracted basis.
But now, with outsourcing visible as a specific global answer to those long-held needs of corporate management, what should someone do whose job is at risk of exportation? Even more critically, what should the education system, particularly in engineering, do to prepare its graduates for this new globalized world? And, even more critically, what must be done to motivate entry to an arduous multiyear program (of first- and even higher-degree work) in technology, if the graduated skill set is sufficiently nonrelevant to be performed offshore at far lower corporate cost?
Needless to say, avoiding this issue, giving up and opting out are not viable options for a concerned educator. But what must be done?
Interestingly, a great deal of insight can be gained by identifying corners of our society whose occupants will doubtless remain unaffected by outsourcing. While many exist-and each can contribute elements of a direction for solution-one embodies a key element of
a general solution. And that is the plumber. For the plumber's strength is that her or his role is inherently local. It cannot be exported. The leak stops here, so to speak. Correspondingly, general solutions to the societal crises that outsourcing presents must deal with a better understanding and application of what is naturally local, yet high-valued.
While one can smile at the status of plumbers in our society, or denigrate their tasks and training, we are beholden to them, and, moreover, they make a good living. But what else is "plumber-like" in other corners of our society? Specifically, what about engineering and engineering education?
It is instructive to consider engineering in the context of other professions, namely medicine and the law. The education system in all professions has an important common property, namely the focus of its education process on a single ultimate goal, the professional pinnacle of achievement. Some make it, and fulfill this goal, but all other contenders finally occupy secondary default positions:
In medicine, basic training is toward the surgeon, in search of those remarkable individuals having a special mixture of intellectual and manual skills, coupled to a personality that will tolerate no nonsense, nor need high-level assistance, but proceed, in the face of blood and chaos, to solve the problem. Of the rest, the more intellectual become specialists, often with some surgical role; but the majority serve a host of other functions in clinical and general practice.
As for the legal profession, the ultimate goal (using the terminology of the British legal system) is the barrister, the one who can ascend in the hostile world of the courtroom. There, the barrister can stand on his or her feet, supplied with data provided by lesser beings (the solicitors); talk at length, and wisely; dominate; and succeed. Of the products of legal education, all the rest become solicitors and corporate lawyers.
Now, in engineering, education is focused on the designer, the creative all-seeing all-capable guru who can create, from little or nothing, the stuff of engineering. But as in the other professions, the pinnacle position is rarely occupied. While all engineers are steeped in what might make them good designers, most perform nominally lesser tasks, dealing with such things as manufacturing and working with customers.
What is most interesting about all of this is the relative sensitivity, in each profession, of its members to outsourcing. How do its stars and others fare?
In medicine, surgeons are supremely secure, for the problems they solve are here and now. Even general practitioners are relatively secure, since their primary interface is local.
In law, barristers and solicitors are relatively secure, simply because each group, in different ways, serves local roles. But corporate lawyers are not.
Oddly enough, it's quite different in engineering, with the ultimate performer, the designer, most at risk. The discipline inherently allows abstraction and communication. Individuals can work on a communicated problem almost anywhere. Moreover, their staff might best be with them. So in engineering, the leader, with all of his or her team, can be far away from the problem.
Otherwise, those at the bottom of engineering employment are most secure. Most customer-directed engineers will likely perform better nearer their customers. But even they are not secure, for Internet coupling of customer to resources grows in direct competition with them.
So what do we see in engineering's future? Something quite distressing. It is that the current driving motivator of engineering education is most at risk in a globalized outsourced world.
Now, what can the engineering profession-and most particularly engineering-education-do about this? A lot, but it will not be easy. A major reason: The solution involves a collection of concepts that are "untouchable" in usual engineering education. Among them: "localized," "environmental," "social," "nontechnical," "interfacing" and "management."
Engineering must e-courage, utilize and even try to teach that increasingly less-common trait of effective folks, namely common sense.
Common sense is an attribute of individuals who are highly observant and truly coupled to their world, their society and their local situation-local needs and local means of delivery. All of these attributes, however important to an individual anywhere, are essential for those who wish to contribute locally. Their awareness, tuned over time, cannot be easily replaced.
For otherwise, the rest of the world is globalized. Many roles are outsourced: For example, detailed design of novel solutions of communicatable problems is likely to be done elsewhere. But the general practitioner of the emerging engineering professions is the link between those global resources and the local needs. So to structure this link effectively, a new engineer's skill set must be augmented technically: It must, for example, include facility at remote management, with supporting ability in such areas as quality assessment.
Yes, there is a role for locally trained, locally employed engineers in the emerging globalized world. But their skill sets must be rethought. New engineering aspirants should be selected more on this trait than on other conventionally structured intelligence, aptitude and grade-achieving performance-testing processes.
Kenneth C. Smith is professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Toronto