Electronic Design

Unresolved H-1B Issue Tempers Modest Economy

The economy is picking up, as we're told by the people who keep track of such things, and the news is slightly encouraging on the employment front for engineers. But it's still a tough market out there, especially for jobs. After climbing to 7% in the first quarter, the jobless rate for EEs fell to 6.4% in the second period. Yet that's still higher than the percentage of other jobless high-tech professionals.

"The data suggests the EE unemployment rate went down because new jobs were added, not because of a reduction in the unemployment EE population," notes IEEE-USA president-elect John Steadman.

A point well taken. Total U.S. unemployment, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics, was 6.2%. But Labor admits that it doesn't consider the nearly half-million who stopped looking for jobs, including lots of EEs. Job Web site administrators report that many engineers have simply given up looking for another job, while others have looked for employment outside the industry.

Some EEs are considering relocating offshore to the Middle East, East Asia, and Australia, according to EPCGlobal, a recruiting firm specializing in engineering and construction professionals. When EPCGlobal put out a call in May for engineers willing to work in Iraq, 363 U.S. engineers sent resumes. But none of them were applying to specific jobs. They were responding to the news of the awarding of reconstruction contracts in Iraq and potential opportunities for engineering jobs in that country. "They were showing interest, wanting to get on board when the projects did start getting handed out," says an EPCGlobal spokesperson.

Near-term, headhunters point to a demand for midlevel and senior EEs in certain areas, such as optoelectronics, power electronics, medical electronics, telecommunications product design, and defense electronics. Nanotechnology is another sought-after specialty. And of course, there's wireless. (The Yankee Group, a communications industry market research and consulting service, is predicting that the global wireless user base will increase 49% over the next four years, reaching 1.72 billion by 2007.)

Long-term, the job news is positive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an upbeat 10-year hiring trend for engineers. It forecasts an 11% increase in the number of EEs between 2000 and 2010 and an 8% increase in new engineering manager slots. The bureau identified computer software engineering, particularly positions involved in applications, as the fastest growing high-tech occupation, doubling from 380,000 job openings in 2000 to 760,000 in 2010.

There's a reality check, however, and that's who gets the jobs. Congress is wrestling with how to deal with the influx of H-1B "guest" engineers and how to protect the U.S. high-tech community from the surging wave of offshore, outsourced design and manufacturing service agreements.

Members of Congress, under some pressure to deal with the H-1B issue, seem to be responding. The USA Jobs Protection Act of 2003 (H.R. 2849) was introduced on July 24. In addition to lowering the H-1B visa cap to 65,000, the bill would require all companies seeking to use non-immigrant skilled workers under the H-1B visa program to attest that no American worker is available to perform the same job. They also must not have laid off an American worker performing the same job duties six months prior to the H-1B hire or lay off that same worker in the subsequent six months. A companion bill (S. 1452) has been introduced in the Senate.

To the IEEE-USA, which lobbies Washington for U.S. EEs, it's a bigger issue than just jobs. "Guest workers are taking the acquired knowledge of U.S. technology and business practices home with them," says IEEE-USA R&D Policy Committee chair Ron Hira. "They're combining that know-how with low labor costs to help foreign businesses compete more effectively with U.S. companies."

Gartner Inc., another research firm, has a similar take on the outsourcing issue. In a new study, it urges industry executives not to trivialize the impact of offshore outsourcing on the loss of future talent and intellectual assets, as well as the potential impact of outsourcing on their organizational performance.

IEEE-USA sent letters to every congressman supporting new H-1B legislation. With more time on their hands, unemployed American EEs are being urged to join the letter-writing campaign as well.

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