Are We Short of Engineers?

Are We Short of Engineers?.

This morning's Wall Street Journal carried a short opinion
piece by Robert J. Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin, complaining how the
US is short of engineers and therefore falling behind the rest of the
world in technological innovation. His list of remedies is all the
usual: Spend more on education, bring in more foreign engineers, work
harder. The only thing he doesn't suggest is the one thing no CEO will
ever allow himself to say: Pay more for engineering talent.

are not short of engineers. I can say this with confidence because if
we were, engineering salaries would be going through the roof (they're
not), engineers would be the constant targets of headhunters urging
them to jump ship (they're not), there would be no unemployed or
underemployed engineers (there are many) and more students would be
entering engineering degree programs. (They're not.) Between the lines
I hear the constant mantra coming from everywhere in the business
world: We want employees who are young, childless, and without
significant medical problems, who are willing to work 80-hour weeks for
under $50,000 a year.

If we are indeed falling behind the rest of
the world in technology (and that's a highly debatable issue) the
solution is not to generate more engineers, but to do more engineering.
And that will require a whole raft of changes in the way business is
done in the US:

  • Our patent system is hugely corrupt, and is actively hindering technological progress.
  • Obstructionism
    under the guise of phony environmental concern is holding back
    technology in many vital areas, especially energy and transportation.
  • Monopolistic
    powers held by telecommunications firms are holding back what we can do
    with cell and wired Internet technology. Just look at what they're
    doing in the Pacific Rim if you don't think this is the case.
  • Tort
    law is like molasses in the crankcase of every single area of American
    endeavor. Employment lawsuits, environmental lawsuits, product
    liability lawsuits are more and more disconnected from reality and any
    reasonable concept of justice—companies can be sued and destroyed for
    things they never did and over which they have no control.

all of that hanging over your head, engineering just isn't much fun
anymore. Nor does it pay especially well. Companies that say, “Well, we
can't afford to pay our engineering staff more than we already do”
always seem to find another $10 million to throw at the CEO or other
top exective staff. No wonder all the bright young kids want to go into
finance or management.

Everybody—CEOs in particular—must remember
that labor is a market. You can only offer so little for wages before
you get no takers due to the time and effort it takes to develop the
skills required to do the job. I think we're at that point in a number
of fields, primarily engineering and medical support. I have reflected
that when markets get efficient enough, they force prices down to the
point where nothing works especially well. Yet if you artificially
raise prices to the point where everything works well, large chunks of
the population can't afford the product. There's obviously a sweet spot
somewhere (there always is) but the kicker is figuring out how to find
it.  [Jeff Duntemann's ContraPositive Diary]

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