Electronic Design

The Changing Face Of Engineering: For Many U.S. EEs, This Is A Time Of Discontent

There are more layoffs, fewer EE graduates, and more foreigners.

LeEarl Bryant
President, IEEE-USA (www.ieeeusa.org)

Gidget Cathcart
Digital hardware designer, Agilent Technologies (www.agilent.com)

Jennifer Palella
Director of corporate marketing and business development, Anadigics Inc. (www.anadigics.com)

Sylvia Thomas
Manufacturing process engineer, Agere Systems Inc. (www.agere.com)

If electronics engineering as a career has been such a trip for so many years, why are there now so many unhappy campers? Engineering is changing, at least in the U.S. EE unemployment is up, while the number of engineering graduates is down, and more jobs are going to foreign engineers. At the same time, despite efforts on several fronts to promote engineering as a career for women and minorities, a widening gender gap exists among EEs.

Unemployment is hardly new in the industry. But numbers are more worrisome than in the past, jumping more than fourfold from 7000 in the first quarter of 2001 to 30,000 for the same period this year, and rising again to 34,000 in the second quarter, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. More layoffs were reported over the summer with IBM announcing plans to cut 15,600 jobs, or 5% of its workforce. Agere Systems then said it planned to cut 4000 jobs.

Much of the blame for the job losses has been focussed on the hiring of foreign high-tech workers who reportedly make 10% to 30% less than homegrown engineers and computer scientists for the same work. Congressional approval of a boost in H1-B visas from 65,000 in 1998 to 195,000 until 2004 has helped a growing number of foreign engineers find jobs in the U.S. The H1-B program allows U.S. companies to recruit temporary high-tech workers for critical jobs if they can't find qualified American candidates. The program is scheduled for reauthorization in 2003.

More than 90,000 foreign engineers and computer scientists entered the U.S. job market with an H1-B visa in 2000. Nearly 43% of them were born in India, far exceeding China, the next largest country, with its 10%. That same year, only 65,000 engineers and 15,000 computer scientists graduated from American schools. The IEEE-USA, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization, has reacted by asking Congress to investigate the impact of increased hiring of non-U.S. guest EEs.

In a letter to every member of Congress, LeEarl Bryant, IEEE-USA president, wrote, "It's time for Congress to take a closer look at the problem of engineering unemployment and to eliminate the government subsidies and incentives that encourage corporate management to treat U.S. engineers as a disposable labor commodity rather than an essential investment in our nation's future." Bryant called for hearings in Congress to address engineering unemployment and the role of non-U.S. high-tech workers and suggested that EEs around the country should hold "town meetings" to help bring more attention to U.S. engineers' plight.

The possibility of preliminary hearings in the House of Representatives on EE unemployment were tentatively discussed for Sep-tember, but that didn't happen, and no new legislation is likely until at least next year. Only one town meeting was scheduled at the time this article was written, as part of a Northern Virginia Center for Inno-vative Unemployment Work- shop.

The IEEE-USA's primary complaint is that while the U.S. has provided new H-1B visas to 147,600 guest workers, there are now more than 180,000 unemployed American engineers and computer scientists in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for electrical and electronics engineers rose from 4.1% in the first quarter of 2002 to 4.8% in the second quarter, the highest level ever recorded for the U.S.

Meanwhile, the number of students graduating with EE degrees has declined steadily over the past 17 years. EE graduates peaked at 77,572 in 1985, but slipped every year since. In 1998, only 60,914 engineering degrees were awarded in the U.S., although not due to a lack of interest. Part of the problem is that too many U.S. EE students never make it to the finish line. Nearly two-thirds of all EE undergraduates either drop out or flunk out of engineering school.

Nearly half to two-thirds of the graduates of some universities obtain advanced technical degrees before seeking full-time employment. The proportion of engineers with advanced degrees continues to rise, according to the IEEE, so that now it has reached nearly 65%.

The number for EEs in the U.S. can be somewhat deceptive because, according to the National Science Foundation's Division of Science Resources Statistics, many of these engineers, both men and women with bachelor's or higher degrees, aren't working as engineers. Quite a few list their occupations as accountants, lawyers (including patent attorneys), doctors, business and financial analysts, and computer systems analysts, as well as sales and marketing engineers. But each of these specialties accounted for only about 1% of the total number of EEs in the U.S. in 1999, the most recent data available from the NSF.

Another, perhaps more subtle, change in the engineering profession is the number of women and minorities in engineering. It's growing, but very slowly. Females account for only 6% of IEEE members (about a third of them work outside the U.S.), with female membership expanding at the rate of only about 0.5% annually during the past few years. Bryant believes that women and minorities are beginning to more visibly contribute to the creative processes that develop products and services. "I learned long ago that women help women the most when we take our profession and careers seriously," she says.

That doesn't seem to be an issue with most women EEs. Gidget Cathcart, a digital hardware designer who worked on Agilent Technologies' R&D benchtop product line for the past four years, and previously designed flip-chip packages, let it be known that when she graduated from Highlands University in New Mexico she wanted to design products. "I love what I'm doing—designing," she says. Cathcart also finds time to talk to junior high and high school students about engineering careers, as well as fourth- and fifth-grade girls. "That's about the time when girls begin losing interest in math and science," she explains.

Is there a women's point of view in engineering? In other words, do women bring a unique approach to the field? Jennifer Palella, the director of corporate marketing and business development at Anadigics, notes, "I don't believe we're unique in that way. But like most engineers, we bring a unique way of thinking and ideas to the job." Palella, whose father was an engineer, sees a big difference in how certain schools and teachers treat boys and girls when it comes to math and science. She attended an all-girls high school where support for pursuing these topics was strong, while at co-ed schools, teachers seemed to give more attention to boys who excelled in math and science. She earned her EE degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sylvia Thomas, a process engineer in manufacturing at Agere Systems, and chairperson of the IEEE-USA's Work Force Committee, also found her way into engineering because she was strong in math and science. But her father, a math professor at Mississippi Valley State University, was also a strong influence. "He kind of pushed me into engineering," she says.

Thomas' IEEE-USA committee has several projects under way to help EEs find jobs for men and women. One is aimed at monitoring the current job market to determine what industry segments offer the best opportunities for employment (telecom, power, and so forth) as a way of making job searching for IEEE members more efficient. Another project is the development of case studies on members who have been displaced and may be seeking new careers. Other programs will address H-1B visa issues.

Salary discrimination is another hot topic among women and minority engineers. Yet according to the IEEE-USA's 2001 Salary & Fringe Benefit Survey, professional women with 20 to 29 years of experience in electrotechnology and information technology—an age bracket where most male EEs fit in today—have higher median incomes than like-experienced men. Women with 20 to 24 years experience earned $100,037 per year from primary sources, while men made $98,500. Women with 25 to 29 years experience received $107,000, men $99,600.

It's a different story for younger EEs. For those with five to six years on the job, men made a median income of $76,000, compared to $68,000 for women. Men received $96,000 at 15 to 19 years, while women earned $84,700.

Another change for EEs over the years, according to the IEEE-USA survey, is that Asian-American IEEE members have the highest median incomes ($99,000), non-Hispanic, white members are at $93,000, and others (usually engineers or computer scientists from India, Pakistan, or the Middle East) have medians of $92,100.

For women, help is on the way. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has disbanded its Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET) and closed down its office but replaced it with another organization called Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) as a public-private partnership. Eight federal agencies, led by the NSF, provided $2 million in seed funding to launch BEST, whose mission is to develop technical talent of under-represented groups. BEST says that it will hold a national meeting in the fall in Washington, D.C. to share its initial policy recommendations with Congress and the Executive Branch. Other organizations, such as the National Society of Black Engineers, a student-managed group with professional staff, and the National Action Council for Minority Engineers, are becoming more active in promoting interest in engineering among minorities, and their hiring.

In the final analysis, it comes down to supply and demand. But where is the supply and who's in demand? Why did the U.S. provide new H-1B visas to 147,600 guest workers at a time when more than 180,000 U.S. engineers and computer scientists are unemployed? And why are U.S. companies hiring so many foreign EEs when there seem to be plenty of U.S. engineers looking for a job? How much more will the face of engineering in America change? To quote a famous Bob Dylan song, "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind."

See associated figure.

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