Electrical Engineering's Identity Crisis
Stay Current, Stay Lucky, Stay Employed
Electrical engineering isn't the same ticket to a comfortable, middle-class life that it once was
By Paul Wallich
For the legions of young people who measure a profession by the purchasing power of its practitioners, electrical engineering has been losing luster for decades. In 1969, a U.S. electrical engineer made almost as much as a lawyer or judge—on average US $ 11 180 a year, according to the 1974 edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Twenty years ago, compensation was still good: full-time EEs who weren't self-employed earned about $34 000 -- close to $4000 more than the average for a salaried doctor, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.
But for electrical engineers in the United States and other industrialized countries, real salary gains have been close to negligible for years. Between 1971 and 1997, the average salary of an IEEE member barely kept ahead of inflation. More substantial gains since then have been tempered by a roughly fivefold increase in the unemployment rate, to approximately 7 percent of EEs in 2003. In the meantime, IEEE members' median salaries have fallen from about the 92nd percentile of U.S. household income in 1971 to about the 85th two years ago, according to a recent study by IEEE-USA.
The reasons for economic stagnation among U.S. and other first-world EEs aren't obscure. A major one is that these workers inhabit an increasingly global business environment in which cheaper but nonetheless effective technological expertise always seems available somewhere else. Whatever the reasons, electrical engineering is not as attractive a career as it once was. Indeed, the entire notion of an engineering career as a ticket to a comfortable middle-class life may no longer be true, says Rosalind H. Williams, director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. Jobs do not last as long as they once did, she notes, and salaries are flat.
For as long as EEs have been around, electrical engineering has changed with the decades, and EEs have had to change, too, or be left behind. The number of jobs has also had its ups and downs over the last 40 years, and periodic recessions have forced many EEs out of the profession, notes Robert A. Rivers, of Orange, Mass., editor of the now-defunct Engineering Manpower Newsletter. But the extreme salary disparity between the fully industrialized and the less-developed countries is a fundamental new shift in the employment equation. Unfortunately, no one really knows how many or what kind of jobs are being sent offshore, says Ronil Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York. The data simply are not being collected.
Most companies don't want it known that they're shipping out white-collar operations, Hira says, because of the obvious potential for backlash from customers, employees, and competitors. The widely cited estimate by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research that up to half a million computer-industry jobs will leave the United States by 2015 may be excessive, but even a fraction of that number could be disastrous for IEEE's U.S. membership, Hira says.
It is clear, he notes, that less exalted jobs such as tech support and low-level programming and design aren't the only ones going offshore. Engineers tell Hira that Texas Instruments, in Dallas, for example, has transferred its entire IEEE 802.11b wireless R&D effort from Research Triangle Park, N.C., to Bangalore, India, and that Agilent Technologies Inc., a Hewlett-Packard Co. spinoff in Palo Alto, Calif., has moved much of its semiconductor R&D to Singapore. Meanwhile, Indian computer services giant Infosys Technologies Ltd., in Bangalore, is growing so rapidly that its market valuation is higher than that of U.S. giant Electronic Data Systems Corp., in Plano, Texas.
When a salary of $15 000 a year in India or Russia buys technical capabilities comparable to those that would cost $70 000 in the United States, the business case for moving technical jobs to lower-cost countries is hard to counter. "The U.S. is still the place where innovation takes place," says Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, an IEEE fellow who heads Tata Consultancy's Advanced Technology Centre in Hyderabad, India. "But to turn an idea into a prototype and then a product does not require the same level of people or the same salaries."
Vidyasagar returned to his native India in 1989 after more than 20 years as an electrical engineering professor in North America. He argues that the U.S. position as a center of innovation is safe for at least the next generation but that the loss of hands-on engineering jobs could ultimately threaten that role.
On the other hand, Kenneth R. Foster, a professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, is concerned for the present generation. He finds the engineering field "in turmoil," with the job market much less stable for engineers than it has ever been. "Many engineers change jobs so often that they wind up with no vested pension rights," he says. And with so much movement between short-term jobs, Foster wonders if a sufficient number of engineers will be available in the future with the advanced design skills needed at innovative and top-of-the-line engineering companies. The question is whether engineering careers remain sufficiently desirable relative to other career options to attract and keep the best and brightest students in the field, says Foster.
Prospects can be daunting for EEs who want to keep up their skills to remain employable. Although many of the senior engineers who spoke to IEEE Spectrum stressed the need for technical currency and lifelong learning, reinventing yourself every few years may go only so far. Take Sandra Robinson of Fort Worth, Texas, a systems integrator turned database engineer turned technical business analyst almost turned community college instructor turned database engineer (again). She was unemployed for 30 months before landing a job last year in defense, which tends to be resistant to moving jobs offshore because government security rules effectively require employees to be U.S. citizens. Many job postings, she recalls, "wanted six months experience on very specific versions of software that wasn't in existence when I was in the trenches." Some of her fellow EEs left the profession entirely, she says—one is now a financial advisor, another a telemarketer.
"I don't think that going back to school to learn new technology helps," says David Meppelink, a Boston-area software engineer who found himself scrambling for a safer job when his employer was bought and started downsizing. Prospective employers passed him up because they wanted people who had used particular tools and technologies to build commercial applications, not just done a semester or two of course work in school. Meppelink ultimately found work with a former colleague, and he says he now looks carefully at how his tasks might look on his résumé. Building software infrastructure for the use of other programmers in the same company or subsidiary components of a featured product is out, because he wouldn't be able to tell a future employer how much his code contributed directly to the company's bottom line.
According to engineering manager Jean Eason of IEEE-USA's Employment and Career Services Committee, such career management tactics are becoming common among younger engineers and programmers. They look carefully at the tasks they take on, she says, because they expect to change employers on a regular basis throughout their careers.
In Europe, Emile Aarts, a vice president at Philips Research Laboratories, in Eindhoven, Netherlands, envisions a future in which most engineering is done locally, to solve problems that people outside a particular region or subculture might not comprehend. Such work, he suggests, will require not merely multidisciplinary teams but engineers with a wide range of interests in addition to deep technical competence. You need "mathematicians who play in a band on the weekend, EEs who do drama, industrial engineers who dance," he says.
Will engineers in lower-income countries eventually learn to dance, too? As things stand now, say Vidyasagar and others, in India or Eastern Europe or Russia, the tendency to think inside the box is still strong. Changing engineering cultures could take generations, says Vidyasagar. In addition to its enormous material head start, he contends, the United States also enjoys a more immigrant-friendly culture, so that any given team is more likely to contain a wide mix of backgrounds and viewpoints.
Even the most culturally enlightened and versatile engineers may nevertheless face a peculiar paradox: the profession tends to put its own practitioners out of work. John Mashey, a former chief scientist at Silicon Graphics Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., notes that one of electrical engineering's recurring themes is reducing complex tasks to routine practice. That, in turn, often means that fewer EEs are needed. Mashey, now a technology consultant, notes how his own field shrank once a few CPU architectures became dominant. Big projects that once called for CPU designers now often demand only routine application of design-automation software, he says.
The good news is that as some engineering tasks become obsolete, new application areas open up, Mashey adds. He points to Canesta Inc., of San Jose, Calif., a new company that recently began offering modules for three-dimensional "machine vision" based on the time it takes light pulses to illuminate a scene and return to a sensor. The company offers modules or circuit and optical hardware layouts, plus software, that designers can apply to position-location and tracking systems of their own.
Of course, as technological advances and offshoring alter the engineering landscape, predicting the future is far from easy. It never was. William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in Washington, D.C., who has just finished shepherding a task force that considered what engineers will be doing in 2020, fully expects that his successors will ask the same kinds of existential questions about what their field will look like in 2050. He feels, though, that even then, people with an irremediable bent to shape the more or less material world will still be doing engineering.