Friday, September 26, 2014

Are We Leading Students Down a Wrong Path?

Let me preface this by saying that the national "conversation" about the changing nature of work in this country has gone on for a long time and will continue to go on.  There are those who fervently believe that within a generation, robots will be doing most of today's low wage jobs and unemployment will approach becoming the majority of the population. Which means the other 50%, who are working, will pay benefits to those replaced by robots.  Can such a society be stable and exist more than a couple of years?  There are those who say that many of the good jobs have left the US and will never come back.

Still, as I've said before, I've been working in American manufacturing companies for almost 40 years - since 1976 to be exact - and the only constant has been people telling me that manufacturing is going away and will never come back.  I've been told over and over, as you'll hear pundit after pundit say, that America just doesn't make anything anymore.  America doesn't make the cheap consumer products that fill your local Wal-Targ-inc store; we make virtually everything else.   Chances are, you'll be getting most of those plastic things 3D printed within 10 years, anyway (my guess).  Today, I work for a company that exports products to China, and have for most of my career. 
I don't watch much TV, but it's hard not to notice the drumbeat that we need to get more kids in engineering, or more precisely into STEM; Science Technology Engineering and Math.  Just last night, I was watching a bunch of fresh-faced child actors glamorizing the appeal of engineering for some company.  After scenes of various teen actors asking "who's going to invent?" various new things, the photogenic kid says, "Change the world?  It's in the job description".   Calculated to appeal to the idealism in kids. 

But are those jobs really going to be there?  In Electrical Engineering Times, author Daniel Donahoe writes about what he sees as the decline of engineering in the Silicon Valley
The US Department of Labor provides more detailed, if more bureaucratic, employment numbers than my simple reference to Craig’s List. The total pool of domestic electronics engineering jobs totaled 223,000 in 2012, some 57% of the total electrical engineering jobs if you include those related to electrical power.

The pool is projected to grow only 5% over the next decade, which works out to only 1,100 new electronics engineering jobs per year. The US graduates approximately 14,000 electrical engineers each year and imports many more. So digging up government data paints a darker picture.
Now graduating 14,000 engineers for 1100 jobs is obviously a problem, but it's worse than that.  We also import engineers under the H1B visa programs started in the 1990s.  Can you really argue we have a shortage of engineering graduates in this country? 

His view of the problem is that industry has turned engineering into any other commodity, and all commodities are price-negotiated in business.  Now maybe this is too "inside baseball" for those who aren't engineers, but he talks about the way that companies have done so much to cut costs.  Not just offshoring things that aren't their "core competencies" (the parts of their business they think they're best at), but everything.  In Donahoe's view, the thing most fundamental to the Silicon Valley is silicon, but the current generation of American semiconductor companies proudly proclaim being "fabless" (they don't make their own silicon chips).  

Back to Donahoe:
Contrary to the Pidgin English promoted by freshly minted MBA’s from management consulting companies, the atrophy of American electronics engineering is not the magical result of an invisible hand or a disruptive force. It is due to a loss of character, or what I call the "great vacuum of American business thought leadership."
Let me caution that Silicon Valley engineers have developed a tendency to be a bit like New Yorkers, in the sense that they think they work in the "Capital of the Universe" and everything important in the industry happens there.  Lots of important engineering goes on in companies that don't make ICs at all; and never had a wafer fab to outsource.  Nevertheless, he has a point about commoditization.  It's why America doesn't make those plastic parts I referred to above.  They're too easy.  To distinguish yourself or your company, you need to do the hard things better than the other guys.  American companies don't make portable AM/FM radios anymore because anyone can make them.  American radio companies make industrial radios that are harder to make, and that are tested to work under extreme conditions.  And you can't consider the megatrends like outsourcing and fabless semiconductor companies without considering the regulatory environment and the government's footprints on the industry.  The famous founders of Silicon Valley, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, started in their garage (now a landmark in the Valley).  Today, they'd probably be locked up for environmental crimes, like dripping alcohol on the floor and leaving it to evaporate.  If it was easier and cheaper to start companies, more companies would be started, and likewise if it was easier and cheaper to run a semiconductor fab than outsource it, more companies would run fab operations. 

As for the kids, it's hard to say if we're setting them up for future unemployment.  I don't know if anyone can demonstrate those commercials affect anyone.  While there might be a few percent of kids that could become engineers who have never thought of the profession, most of them have The Knack and know it - even if they don't have the words for it.  They know they're ... different.


  1. " Today, they'd probably be locked up for environmental crimes, like dripping alcohol on the floor and leaving it to evaporate. "

    Whoo, boy, have you got that right!

  2. Insufficient data to produce even a crappy survey, but I've seen several companies, with which I've had direct involvement, possess the attitude of "we don't do that, we do this."

    When I point out that the technology (frequently the technology I've implemented for them) allows fairly easy pursuit of new endeavors I get blank stares because they've never learned to think outside the box.

    In more than a few cases, the regulatory environment makes it prohibitively expensive to pursue those endeavors, but many times it doesn't, it's just mindset.

  3. There won't be thousands of new engineers, because "math is hard." And they don't want to actually have to do anything beyond cram for a test the night before. Actually have to LEARN something? Actually understand calculus or differential equations? Hell, they can't balance their check books.

    The real problem with education is that kids are spending a 100,000 bucks to get a degree in environmental studies, when what they really need is a license to run a water-treatment plant. Or they have a degree in ancient French literature, and are surprised they can only find work at Starbucks.

    Look up Mike Rowe Works (as in Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs). He has some interesting stuff going on. Around the idea that hard work is not a bad thing, if it means you can support yourself and your family.

  4. As for "fabless" silicon... that in part falls to the Fairchild Semiconductor fiasco in South San Jose in the early 80s.

    There were problems. And problems in what the EPA did.

    The EPA made it clear that it was TOO EXPENSIVE to run fabs in the US. By the late 80s most silicon had moved offshore. The EPA saw to that.

    So, the EPA didn't "fix the problem." They sent it to places where it wasn't treated like a problem. Nobody won. Not the fab operators. Not the environment.

    That said, the fact that a small group of engineers can come up with a design and have someone else produce it should make silicon more available. Look at what it did for the PCB industry. (I can order 3 or 5 prototype boards for less than 100 or 200 bucks - and use design SW I download for free. Look at what groups like TAPR have done with that.)

  5. I would like to point out that there are literally thousands of Electronic Engineers working as programmers.

    You can teach anyone to be a code monkey, but for some reason EEs seem to excel at it. The next big market for software will be in "secure programming" where code is optimized to remove buffer overflow vulnerabilities.

  6. Another issue is that some of us older guys are retiring (baby boomers). This should leave room for some youngsters -- it's certainly happening among airline pilots.

    I could have kept working, but the taxes were making it too onerous. I decided that I didn't need the money, the hassle, or the taxes.

  7. The company I work for has "commodotized" but fortunately we've made it work. I make a good living, and there are the occasional projects that make me stretch a bit. I'm civil/structural.

    I think that this can partly be blamed on AutoCAD, fax machines, email, texting, cell phones, etc. It seems that the faster (and shoddier) business "communication" can go, the more instantaneous clients think our work can be. It used to be that you had the good/fast/cheap triangle where a client had to choose two of the three. But now, I think they're demanding all three, so Gresham's Law is rearing its head.

    We've managed it by specializing to a very high degree, but I don't think we could go much further.