BOSTON Engineers and programmers had better be prepared to learn new languages and programming skills in order to make themselves indispensable, C++ training consultant Dan Saks said in a keynote speech at Embedded Systems Conference here Tuesday (Sept. 14).
If programmers are not prepared to widen their horizons to avoid losing jobs to outsourcing, they should consider another line of work, Saks added.
Founder and president of Saks & Associates Inc., the consultant said that while the outsourcing threat is real, the advantages of moving programming to India or China may be exaggerated. Overall cost advantages are roughly two to three times those for hiring engineers and programmers in the U.S., not the five- to ten-fold savings often cited by proponents, he said.
The total cost of using an offshore embedded-systems team ranges from $30,000 to $45,000 a year, Saks estimated. Some U.S.-based companies have attempted to keep jobs here by offering salaries in the $40,000 range, Saks said. One company found takers at that rate, and was able to finish a project. It later retained engineers and programmers on a permanent basis at a rate closer to the $75,000 median, he said.
"It may be true that Indian engineers and programmers have a salary range of $5,000 to $20,000, but that does not take into account the tangential costs of having an offshore staff," Saks said. "It also does not factor in special circumstances. An EE can earn ten times as much in Bangalore if he knows HTML than if he knows C++."
Saks said hard statistics on the effects of offshore hiring are notoriously slippery. Goldman Sachs has estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 U.S. jobs were lost to Asia between 2001 and 2004, though that figure includes service jobs as well as high tech. Forrester Research estimates total job displacement in all fields will reach 835,000 by the end of 2005.
Saks added that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that only 2 percent of all U.S. jobs lost were the result of offshore transfers, while 4 percent were lost to relocation within the U.S.
Beyond pursuing political solutions based on taxing U.S. corporations for offshoring jobs, among the other options for engineers and programmers is to make the jobs "offshore-proof" by seeking positions where job tasks are integral to the overall project. Another tactic is to seek work where engineers have direct access to confidential or secret information that cannot be outsourced.
Becoming indispensable in a particular embedded field also helps, Saks said. Recent aerospace industry studies have shown a 200-to-1 productivity ratio between the most efficient programmer and the least efficient. Engineers struggling to keep their jobs must make sure they remain on top of their games at all times, Saks said.
Passion for one's work is also key. If not, Saks said, "you might as well forget programming and [become] a lumberjack or something. I'm not kidding. You must truly love what you do to be successful at making yourself indispensable."
In embedded programming, learning a less-popular language like Ada or Eiffel is critical not so much because it is a marketable skill but because it helps programmers see what is possible with more mainstream languages like C, C++ or Java, he said.
Learning scripting language also couldn't hurt, Saks said, adding that programmers must remain vigilant so that scripting does not lead to lazy programming. "There is no room for a what-the-heck [attitude] in the new environment, and no room for lazy programmers," Saks said.