There is an interesting book by Barbara Ehrenreich. It's called Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Published in 2006, it's pertinent to the condition of the engineering profession in the U.S. today.
What is the American Dream? Contrary to detractors of the U.S., it isn't the idea of getting something for nothing, or getting a free ride. It started out as the idea of simply working hard, saving money, and then getting to benefit from the results.
This was a revolutionary idea, when you compare it to what had been happening in prior or in other societies, where someone would work hard--say as a serf, servant, or slave--and not get to keep a sufficient amount of the results of the labor to improve one's condition. But early, pre-industrial America held out the promise of freedom, at least in theory, so that individuals could work to improve themselves, and benefit from their own labor without interference.
This proposition faded quite a bit for employees in newly created factories during the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. For the most part, they worked through hand-to-mouth existences in debilitating conditions. Nobility didn't seem to have much place in those surroundings, as documented in books such as A Sweatshop During the Industrial Revolution by Adam Woog.
While standards of living should have improved more rapidly as goods came to be produced more efficiently, it wasn't until the labor movement reached full swing, after many bloody encounters, that employees got to keep a larger share of the results of their hard work, and the leisure time to enjoy it. The American Dream then began to transform, for the first time, from a dream into an institutionalized reality, reaching a peak during the 1950's.
What happened to the idea that, by working hard, you could not only beat back hunger and poverty, but actually put something away for a rainy day? You may recall that, just a short time ago, rampant overwork and declining leisure was the subject of headlines. Books like The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure by Juliet Schor chronicled the surprising conclusion that hard work was not creating more leisure, but less! According to Schor, in the 1990's, we worked harder than we had 40 years earlier, and we were on track to shortly regress to the same work schedules we had in the 1920's.
Our reward for all that hard work? It was huge unemployment, which, by the way, is likely at near-Depression levels, but is not being reported that way because those unemployed who have exhausted their benefits are no longer being officially counted. In fact, once they do exhaust their benefits, they are booted off the rolls, resulting in crazy numbers that on the one hand show hardly any new jobs created, but on the other hand show the unemployment rate getting better and better.
The question for the Noble Profession is now, is the profession itself viable? That is, is it now too much of an expectation that studying hard to get an engineering degree, then working exceptionally hard for an employer, will result in a stable lifestyle that includes food and shelter into one's retirement? Hard to believe that such questions can be legitimately asked concerning engineering, but the facts seem to show that the old promise of hard work leading to security is not resulting in even the minimum long-term rewards. In other words, has the Noble Profession fallen to, and essentially become, a bait and switch scam?
Ehrenreich writes, on pages 232 to 233 of Bait and Switch, “Other white-collar occupational groups--doctors, lawyers, teachers, and college professors--have done better at carving out some autonomy and security for themselves. Their principal strategy, undertaken in the early twentieth century, was professionalization: the erection of steep barriers to the occupation, backed up by the force of law and the power of professional organizations like the AMA.” But for technological careers, or really any white collar job nowadays, it is different. She writes, on page 235, “As it is, the IT person who is required to train her Indian replacement--a not uncommon indignity--might as well be digging her own grave.”
Before you do, you might want to read up on "Operation Paperclip". The essence of this story was: It's not who you are (or were), but what you know.
Most professions and trades deal with very specialized knowledge; for example, heart doctors, licensed electricians. On the other hand, guys and gals who have chosen to work in embedded electronics have to go the opposite way. They have to have strong knowledge in a wide variety of subjects ranging from DSP to wavelet analysis to advanced math; and, I'm not even including technical writing and the other soft skills. In other words,embedded IT people have to be generalists, not specialists.
Surely the American Dream has always been about access to opportunities.
The Dreamers (for want of a better phrase) that traveled from Europe saw that there were opportunities for a man (and very seldom a woman) to work hard or invest well and make a comfortable life. You were the master of your destiny.
Of course that did not apply to all people coming to America. eg. slaves.
These days immigration (legal and illegal) continues because many people still see America as providing better opportunities than their native countries. Increasingly though they are heading to other parts of the world.
At some point (perhaps the mid 1950s) the opportunities were many and the need to work hard dropped off. The American Dream was replaced by an inflated sense of entitlement.
That sense of entitlement now conflicts with globalisation. Jobs are just jobs, but Americans see them as "American Jobs". Why should an American auto-worker or engineer have more right to jobs than an Asian? Why should they be paid more? Why should a unionised American auto-worker have a guaranteed USD100k/year job for doing what the market says is only worth $10k/year.
The book argues for professional protectionism (after all that's all registration etc really are). I argue that this would kill of American industry faster.
Such professional registration allows doctors (and even plumbers and electricians) to charge inflated prices. That might work for a short period, but would inflate the costs of the whole industry.
There is a big difference between a doctor (or even a plumber for that matter) and an engineer. The engineer's work can be taken offshore with nothing hoilding it to a specific location. A doctor (or plumber) can't be undercut effectively because there is no practical way to send a sick person (or leaky toilet) overseas to be fixed.
I am saying the problem is much deeper and wider than some might think. Engineering is just another discipline and instead of trying to argue for a special status (noble profession etc.) I think we should go to the root of the problem i.e. the wider political, economic and social organisation of the developed world.
@Richard, I am not sure there has even been a golden age when workers were fairly rewarded for their hard work. The people who had the capital have always exploited workers one way or another. In the days of plenty, things do not appear bad, but when things get tougher, the exploitation becomes very clear for everybody to see.
PS. The American Dream worked for some but failed miserably for others, and I am not sure it's such a revolutionary idea either. At various stages of human history, people moved from one place to another to seek new opportunities. In the 19th century, for instance, Britain was a magnet for German and other European entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals. They just did not call it the British Dream then :-)
All this reminds me of another book. "Who ate my cheese". I think is an exaggeration but the phrase "The only constant is the change" applies here. Nothing has a guarantee that will last forever and the engineering isn't exempt of suffering a shift of location. Seems quite logical that outsourcing manufacturing and development would result in a switch of jobs in engineering but, I'm a little surprised that no one decided to avoid this at the proper time. I think the forces of business are stronger than the desire of man to govern their environment.
But perhaps all this responds to a natural development of a country whereas a puberty stage is related with technological development and the young adulthood is focused on bringing innovation and new business models. Don't you think?
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.