To the Editor
Re: Who is telling kids to avoid engineering?
As I read this thread three related but distinct issues are apparent:
1) The impact of outsourcing on the engineering labor market
2) The impact of H1-B visas on the engineering labor market
3) Should America's brightest prospects be encouraged to pursue engineering?
1) The engineering labor market has expanded globally. It is inevitable that the extra supply of labor will push down the median compensation of engineers in the developed world. This will occur regardless of government action. Companies must find the lowest cost method available to develop their products or they will lose in the marketplace.
Some professions, like law, have long shielded themselves from competition by forming trade associations that require membership to practice. Unlike lawyers, it is impractical for engineers to form a trade association that wields much power. Law is defined by a government presiding over a certain geography. This has historically limited the ability of law firms to move their operations elsewhere. The licensed practice of medicine also has a geographical limitation. Civilian engineering work has never faced that fundamental restriction and the possibility of outsourcing is not a new development. It has just been facilitated by post cold war politics, improving education in developing countries, and the low cost of IT.
2) Since government in a free market economy has little control over corporate operations, the question that arises is how to maintain technological expertise when the global labor market is reducing the compensation of your engineers. Your homegrown talent increasingly faces more attractive options in other fields, such as the law and medicine. To force better compensation for engineers will only drive jobs out of your country. Why not leverage the assets that you have? In exchange for working here at a globally competitive wage, offer residency and potential citizenship in a country that people risk their lives just to reach.
From the government's perspective, the visa program is a good deal, producing talented workers that we didn't spend any tax money on to educate. The H1-B visa program is a tool the government uses to keep engineering relevant in the U.S. By introducing skilled labor in the U.S., more work remains here. Some will argue that it suppresses salaries or costs jobs, but I believe that the labor market is so globalized that the impact of H1-B workers on wages is insignificant relative to the competition of engineers overseas.
Yes, there are there many unemployed engineers today. Yes, many of them would accept a lower wage to get back to work. However, change in the technology industry is rapid. A lot of companies are unwilling to invest in training someone when a person with the right skills is available. Government should encourage this investment, but it should not mandate it. Doing so will only drive more work into lower cost and even less regulated labor markets. The easy recruiting of qualified candidates has become essential to the technology economy in the U.S.
3) Given the competitiveness of the global engineering workforce, I will likely discourage my children from pursuing a career in engineering. In the end it will be their decision. My advice will be that there are many benefits to an engineering education, the academic rigor is proof of ability and it can be used as a background for a business or legal career. If you have a very deep passion for the field, than an engineering career is still a worthwhile pursuit. Engineering remains an area ripe for entrepreneurship and there will always be jobs for the best scientists and engineers no matter what they cost. However to be merely a good engineer may leave you unemployed in the middle of your career, with a narrow set of skills that nobody wants. Of course you can pick up and start over, but why bother with the risk when there are so many other great options?
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