|Volume 1: No. 06|
Robert A. Rivers points out an interesting phenomenon in The IEEE Grid (5/99). It's fairly obvious that managers and industry leaders want an oversupply of engineers so that they can pick, cheaply, from the top 10%. (Well, you don't want the bottom 10% designing reactors, do you?) NSF's predicted shortages could also be self-serving, since its education and "pipeline" budgets depend upon the perceived need. (Then again, NSF could be right. And should we stop encouraging women and minorities?) Rivers points out that a third biased group, the engineering educators, are strongly represented in the engineering societies. Educators naturally push for increased enrollments. Thus the professional societies themselves tend to work against the stable employment, high salaries, high status, and creative work that would accompany a moderate shortage of engineers.
Robert W. Lucky mentions [Spectrum, 5/91] that health care entails a relatively constant amount of work, but that the need for legal help increases in proportion to the number of lawyers. It's not clear whether engineering is closer to medicine or to the law. (Probably the latter, given a competitive marketplace.)
My own view on the U.S. "shortage" is that it's all relative to our competition. If other countries are no more successful than we in training engineers, it's a level field. No great harm is done if society has to wait an extra few years for the next advance in electronics. If Japan and Germany train more or better engineers than we do, though, design and manufacturing will move to those countries. Even that is not terrible if we see it coming and invest accordingly. If we don't recognize that a competition exists, and that we are losing, we will deserve our economic woes.
Even if we do have a problem in the U.S., I suspect that it has little to do with the number of graduating engineers. Rather, it is with a system that throws away experienced engineers in favor of cheap, inexperienced ones. I'm not going to tell corporations how to run their businesses, but there should be alternative employment option where the experienced engineers could show their stuff and win revenge on their short-sighted former employers.
Consulting or starting one's own design business is such an option. Unfortunately, most engineering projects require physical resources far beyond the means of startup companies. One solution would be state sponsorship of such resources, with access awarded by need and merit, much as we now give access to telescopes, supercomputers, cyclotrons, MOSIS VLSI fabrication, and even government grant money. The Stanford CIS project to develop remote mechanical fabrication facilities is in this tradition.
The other missing link is in sharing of human expertise and effort. Modern engineering usually requires team effort, with additional teams of accountants and support personnel. Wouldn't it be great if engineers around the world could contribute expertise incrementally to an evolving design, each receiving compensation in proportion to contribution? Sort of a Xanadu project for engineers. I have no idea how compensation would be determined, but it's something to dream about.