How to get more engineers: Pay them

Oct. 26, 2006
Attendees at the recent National Instruments Week conference gave Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, a well-deserved standing ovation after his keynote speech.

Leland Teschler, Editor

He had talked about First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the organization he founded in an attempt to make engineering as attractive to kids as sports and entertainment.

I wish Kamen luck with encouraging youngsters to pursue engineering careers. I think he'll need it. The main problem isn't a sports-worshiping culture, as he apparently believes. It is that engineers are among those in the middle class whose wages are being squeezed by trends in globalization. That means kids who might consider toughing out four years of engineering courses will see less reward for doing so.

The trouble, of course, is that engineering jobs can be offshored. Even economists who are inclined to see globalization as a positive influence now admit offshoring depresses wages. It probably explains why the inflation-adjusted median wage of American graduates has fallen by 6% since 2000. Engineers are among those whose paychecks are getting the most pressure.

And skill levels are rising in nations known as fertile ground for outsourcers. So white-collar workers in America will see competition from their well-educated counterparts halfway round the world for some time to come.

Young people considering a career path may not understand all this, but they can certainly figure out where the money is. And the money will increasingly be in jobs where there's no threat of a shift offshore to put a damper on salaries. That's great news for crane operators and electricians. For the same reason, college graduates are likely to find careers connected with health care and finance more attractive than those in manufacturing.

There is evidence these trends are already having an impact. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, says the mean annual salary of pharmacists exceeds that of several engineering categories, including aerospace, electronics, and computer hardware. Pharmacists make an interesting comparison because they, like engineers, can enter their profession with just a Bachelor's degree. (And pharmacists, incidentally, have no unpaid overtime.)

Statistics are one thing, but MACHINE DESIGN readers give us plenty of anecdotal evidence that promising graduates are abandoning technology for greener pastures. A recent example comes from an engineering professor with whom we correspond. He remarks that some of his former students have changed careers. They are now financial analysts. When asked why, the answer that came back in so many words was that money talks.

Finally, Dean Kamen might note the teenagers he is trying to dissuade from pursuing sports careers are demonstrating a gut-level understanding of world economics: Quarterbacks and power forwards needn't worry about wage compression from globalization.

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