Electronics manufacturing is gone. Is engineering next?

I heard recently that another friend and printed circuit board designer who works for a company primarily known for producing large industrial and farm equipment will soon be out of a job. Yes, like many before them, the company is moving the circuit board design department offshore, in this case, to India.

While those in public relations and financial analysts will come up with nice-sounding justifications, most of us know the truth: It is a matter of dollars and cents. And meanwhile, the US continues to lose engineering know-how and expertise.

According to some, the US has already lost its technological edge to India and China. While North America still has the intellectual know-how and knowledge base, and in most cases a small physical ability to produce high technology PCBs, the capability to do so in quantity is severely diminished, if not altogether gone. Many say that the same will soon hold true in engineering. According to some of the latest information I’ve seen, the drain in engineering expertise continues. Just as the US talks about adding highly skilled, high paying jobs, the exodus continues. Even though the overall job market in the US seems to be slowly improving, engineers and scientists are two of the job functions that are decreasing, according to some reports. While I’ll admit that a lot of this may well be outside my intellectual wheelhouse, as much as I try, it just doesn’t make much sense to me. While the current administration and even the opposition talk about job creation and pitiful programs to give an employer a $5,000 tax break for new hires, I haven’t seen anything designed to stem the offshore flow of experienced engineering and scientific jobs.

As a small businessman, I understand many of the core concepts of controlling costs, and certainly realize employee overhead is a significant factor. While we can castigate certain mega-companies for sending jobs offshore, we also have to look in the mirror and realize that a lot of this is our own fault. We want these companies to be highly profitable because their profitability is what feeds our 401(k) and retirement plans. But as a CEO from a large Japanese company recently asked, “Do you want a plan for three-month profitability, or do you want a profitability plan for 10 years?” Is it really so farfetched to give US companies real tax incentives to hire domestic workers, or, heaven forbid, tax them for sending jobs offshore?

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for developing countries’ efforts toward educating their populace and developing high-tech industries to compete in the global economy. I’m a proponent of free trade. But I’m also a proponent of fair trade. However, I keep asking myself, What is the US strategy for replacing or retaining these engineering jobs? And what is the strategy for maintaining a high-tech engineering and production capability? Does the US Commerce Department or government at large even consider electronics a high-tech arena worth being in?

In a recent blog, Eric Bogatin recapped a panel session held at DesignCon in February. One of the panelists, noted aeronautical engineer and author Gentry Lee, observed a worrisome (to me) and significant trend: the decline and fall of the US as an economic power. Lee sees the engineering and design capabilities taking the same path as manufacturing – to other countries, followed closely by research and development. In his blog (http://bethesignal.net/blog/?p=72), Eric says, “There go the skilled jobs. What will this leave as the economy base for America?”

Ross Perot, during one of his many quixotic runs at the presidency, warned that ratifying NAFTA would result in a “great sucking sound” of American dollars and jobs leaving the country.

If Eric’s and Lee’s scenario plays out, the sucking sound Perot warned of will be deafening. And if I had grandchildren, instead of advising them to go into engineering or science, I’d have to teach them to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”

Pete Waddell is publisher and design technical editor of PCD&F; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

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