This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
No question, times are tough for many working engineers. But is the current job market really worse than previous ones? And what are the effects of an increasingly global workforce on the engineering profession? IEEE Spectrum's senior associate editor Jean Kumagai spoke with Stephen R. Barley, the Charles M. Pigott Professor of Management Science and Engineering and codirector of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford University's School of Engineering, to get his thoughts on what's going on in the engineering workplace.
Let's start with the current downturn, which started a couple years ago and isn't showing many signs of improving. Is this just a cyclical thing, or a sign of something more permanent?
No one can know for sure, but what I would say is that in the past, engineering employment has risen and fallen with the rise and fall of cycles in the economy—particularly in aerospace, where employment was subject to the ups and downs in military budgets and funding that NASA got or did not get over the years. These ups and downs play out in the engineering labor force pretty much across the board.
Now, IT [information technology] and computer science occupations, in particular, have grown more than have other fields, and it may be that for many of these folks, this is their first downturn, so it seems worse than it might otherwise. Also, the demand for IT people in the 1990s was driven not by the military or NASA, but by dot-coms and the emergence of the Web and by the spread of computer technologies, which upped the demand for networked infrastructures, like chips and routers and so forth.
And has that demand now dried up?
Well, it's dried up, yes, but a similar thing happened in the 1980s. Back then, the problem was that the Japanese had really learned how to make chips, and they were dumping large numbers of them into the U.S. market, which drove a lot of people out of work. But the industry as a whole eventually recovered.
What about the concern among U.S. engineers that the "good" jobs are moving overseas?
There is definitely more work being done by developers overseas than 15 years ago, and that trend will continue. But in any field, insiders tend to think about some work as being more exciting and challenging than others, and my sense is that what's mostly getting moved offshore is more rote-oriented programming.
Companies will encounter limits on how much they can move overseas. It's the same problem every technical company faces when it has people working on complex systems, on subcomponents of subcomponents that all need to be integrated. Integration is always the Achilles' heel in developing any complex technology, and so the more distanced people are from talking to each other, the more likely you are to have interface problems when you start putting things together.
What about things like virtual collaboration, which some companies are trying to get around this problem?
Companies are certainly experimenting with virtual collaboration. On this topic the research literature speaks in a single voice. The data overwhelming suggest that virtual collaboration between people who don't know each other is very difficult and that virtual teams are are more likely than face-to-face teams to be hampered by coordination and communication problems.
What about the effect of H-1B visas on job prospects for U.S. engineers?
[Editor's note: An H-1B visa permits non-U.S. engineers and others in "specialty occupations" to work temporarily in the United States, provided they have a sponsoring employer.]
I suspect there are firms who have hired H-1B workers because they're cheaper. But no data I know of shows that that's the general practice.
What about from the H-1B holders' perspective?
For them, it's the classic immigrant story. Why did the Irish come here? Why did the Slavs? In part to escape persecution, but largely because they could make tremendously more money here.
And it doesn't take H-1B holders long to figure out that they're getting paid less than the average U.S. employee. Most of these workers are brought in by staffing agencies that specialize in providing H-1B contractors, and usually there's some kind of agreement that says in return for coming over, the individual will work for the agency for some period of time, and that agency holds the sponsorship for the H-1B. In order to go to work for another firm, the contractor has to find one that's willing to sponsor him. So what'll happen is that the contractor will figure out he's working for less, he'll find another firm, the transfer will take place, and then his salary will go up.
But I've read these horror stories in the newspapers about H-1B holders who've been exploited by their employers.
I'm sure there are people like that, and it makes for a good story, but that's not the modal experience.
You recently wrapped up a study of contract engineers.
Yes, it was a three-year study of contractors, staffing agencies, and project teams that employed both full-time and contract workers. All the workers were in high-tech occupations—developers and programmers, technical writers, quality analysts, chip designers, and system administrator types. About a quarter were from outside California, but there were no real differences in the kinds of things we heard from Silicon Valley or Austin or Atlanta or D.C. or New York City or Toronto or Seattle.
What kinds of things did you hear?
One thing we found was that firms often use contractors as a way of securing expertise that they don't have inside the company. The second thing was the incredible amount of time that contractors put into maintaining themselves on the cutting edge. They always have to worry about their marketability, so they're constantly updating what they know.
How do they go about that?
Just about any way you can think of. Some take courses. A lot of them use the Web, which is actually very good for technical information, although it can be horrible for other types of information. They also develop extensive networks that include practitioners in the same or related occupations, whom they not only go to for job referrals, but for technical advice. And of course they read books, they subscribe to magazines, the whole schmear.