Chicago—The layoffs of the past couple years have hit electronic engineers in particular hard, and that's prompting some EEs to start leaving the field for marketing, law, and other fields. Some industry leaders say engineering is facing serious problems, though others contend engineers are surviving the current downturn better than most.
The president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers-USA recently turned up the heat in a speech discussing "serious threats to the long-term viability of U.S. engineering careers." She cites competition from foreign engineers in low-cost countries and corporate attempts to cut costs by hiring engineers on a temporary contract basis as key issues.
"For people who view this as a career, engineering is in worse shape now than it's been in years," says LeEarl Bryant, IEEE-USA president. There's no shortage of EEs who agree with her, and some are voting with their feet. "I spent seven years in school for a six-year career," says Paul Porter, a 29-year-old with BSEE and MSEE degrees from the University of Texas.
He's leaving troubled Nortel Networks, which recently added his wife and several close friends to its 50,000-plus layoffs, after spending three years on assignment in Germany. Saying the future for engineers looks bleak, he's heading back to school to seek an MBA.
EEs have been particularly battered by the current downturn. The computer and telecommunications segments have issued more than 800,000 pink slips since the start of 2001, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.
Moreover, there's some concern that college students are shying away from engineering. After peaking at 77,572 in 1985, the number of engineering graduates has declined, according to the National Science Foundation.
However, some observers feel that the profession is in no danger, and that it's faring better than most in the current economic downturn. "I think engineering is very healthy, salaries are up," says Win Philips, chairman of the American Association of Engineering Societies.
He adds that while engineers have been hit hard during the last couple years, they're managing better than most. "Usually if an engineer is laid off, a dozen other people are losing their jobs," Phillips says.
Though the overall profession may be doing well, not everyone feels it has the stability that it has offered for decades. "Getting an electronic engineering degree is a prerequisite to go into marketing," says Mark Schaeffer, a 38-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He has been leveraging his MSEE degree by working in finance and marketing.
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One of the things that EEs feel is most galling is competition from offshore. The Internet is fostering a trend towards collaborative engineering, and a growing number of the collaborators are offshore. Engineers in India, Eastern Europe and China often work for a fraction of U.S. wages, so many firms contract work out overseas.
But it's when foreigners come to this country that really raises the ire of many EEs. Congress currently allows 195,00 temporary H-1B workers into the U.S. every year. Many feel that figure is too high, particularly in a depressed economy. They contend that H-1Bs make substantially less than U.S. citizens, and regulations make it difficult for H-1Bs to change employers. That makes them attractive to firms trying to cut costs.
"About 800,000 engineers were unemployed a few months ago. If you take out the H-1Bs who came in, you'd have jobs for all of them," Bryant says.
Another key issue is age discrimination. It's particularly acute in software, which is changing far faster than in other engineering disciplines. "There's rampant age discrimination in the software field," says Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis.
Matloff, Bryant, and others contend that firms feel new college grads are more familiar with the latest technologies. Conversely, overworked engineers find it difficult to learn about new technology.
However, some contend that this is simply a factor of rapid changes in technology. National Academy of Engineering President William Wulf notes that this is because the half life of engineering knowledge is from two to seven years.
"Engineers have to embrace lifelong learning as a normal mode of behavior," Wulf says.