Electronic Design

Engineering Specialties

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is known for its high-technology sector. Yet it has seen jobs move overseas, too. A University of Ottawa report, Ottawa Works 2—Profiling Ottawa's Work Force (2002), says the recent downturn in information and communication technology (ICT) sector jobs has produced an oversupply in many categories, particularly software-related positions, intermediate and junior engineers, and business-development positions.

All these jobs tend to move overseas due to lower costs. At the same time, there's a shortage of microchip designers, RF engineers, AFIT designers, and programmers that know ERP products and Java. Due to the difficulty in farming out these jobs, companies go begging for qualified engineers.

Outsourcing and competition will never go away. Healthy competition is key. According to David Darley, lead system service design for a major medical systems manufacturer, "We must compete with other countries with efficiency and creativity. As you develop unique expertise, it is difficult to outsource. I believe we should compete in outsourcing as we did in the auto industry." His company has had successful and not-so-successful results with outsourcing. The not-so-successful jobs were brought back.

How can engineers keep their jobs? The University of Ottawa report classified engineering jobs as either "sunset" or "sunrise" occupations. Sunset occupations include MS Windows-based positions, fiber optics, computer programming, information-systems and data-processing management, and electrical and electronics engineering. Sunrise occupations, which will place greater demands on engineering schools, include photonics and optical systems, UNIX-based systems, security, wireless, biotech and bio-informatics, interactive media development, and Web design and development.

Engineers must stay current to stay employable, and schools will have to help. "In my opinion, there will always be a need for engineers in the U.S.—but only the most talented ones," says Vijendra Nalwad, mechanical engineering manager, Belkin Corp., Industrial Design Group. "In a \[global economy\] there will be very little room for mediocrity."

"Excellence, no matter where it exists, will be recognized and rewarded," continues Nalwad. "Educational institutions must face this new reality and better prepare students to enter a vastly different, ultra-competitive workplace. I feel a lot of opportunities will be created for engineers in the U.S. who have the ability to tie distributed teams together and get them to work as if they were co-located."

Even so, there are few guarantees of job security because engineers overseas are also sharpening their skills. "The policy question is: Can such workers upgrade their skill sets to re-justify the large wage differentials ($78,000 with benefits for a Silicon Valley programmer versus $8000 for an engineer in India) that they currently enjoy?" asked Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute during testimony in front of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, March 11, 2004.

"The answer depends on how high the 'skill bar' is raised by offshoring," he noted, "If, for example, our radiologists, architects, and computer scientists need skill upgrades, the bar may be set unrealistically high, and such workers could easily see their living standards decline."

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