Electronic Design

Can Politicians Make A Difference?

They can and do. But which political party best represents the interests of the engineering community?

"I hate Republicans."

"Democrats are scum."

"Republicans are a lower life form!"

"Democrats are irresponsible."

"I have been laid off twice, both times during Republican administrations. My highest income growth periods have all occurred during Democratic administrations."

"Democrats are neo-Luddites. Progress scares them."

"Republicans would outsource their own mother."

These are your fellow engineers talking, in response to Electronic Design's 2004 online Reader Profile Survey. The industry remains in a huge state of flux, with the rapid shift to offshore outsourcing and a growing number of U.S. companies locating design centers offshore, coupled with rapid changes in technology.

Eventually, the engineering community bears the brunt of this upheaval. Jobs have been lost, competition has heated up globally, and it's not clear to many people where federal funding is going for defense and aerospace programs—especially with a national election looming in November. As our survey indicates, all of this affects how EEs perceive their role in the national economy, the country's political leadership, and their careers.

There were also more thoughtful (and slightly less angry), but anonymous, comments than those already expressed that came with the about 2700 survey returns. Can politics make a difference in the lives of working engineers? There's little doubt that they do. But is it a good thing?

Several survey respondents suggested that neither political party has done enough to stop the flow of jobs and technology to other countries. For instance:

"Government is about power and embedded self-interest, not performance."

"I am a capitalist. I think the role of the government in business should be strictly limited to prosecuting crime, defending contracts, and defending the country. It should not be setting or controlling business policy."

"Democrats appear to be more concerned about the outsourcing of jobs, but offer no solutions."

Although engineers are generally thought of as a conservative bunch, even in their own ranks, the survey revealed that isn't necessarily true (though they did tend to give higher marks to Republicans as the "business party"). Most survey respondents (46.2%) characterized their social politics as moderate, while only 38.6% declared themselves conservative. Just 5.2% identified themselves as liberal.

When asked to identify their political party affiliation, most (42.2%) declared themselves as Republicans. Independents tallied in at 30.7%, higher than the national average according to most recent national polls. Only 18% indicated that they're Democrats. Another 9.1% said they support "other" parties, or political organizations, ranging from the Green to Libertarian parties to unaffiliated. More often, though, the answer was "none of the above," while a handful replied "none of your business." A few even identified themselves as Socialists.

But when it came to the question "Which political party best represents the interests of the engineering community?" 52.2% of the respondents gave the nod to Republicans. Only 24.6% said Democrats. Another 23.2% checked off "other," which meant that they either didn't have an opinion, or that neither party represents engineers very well, or that "it depends."

Why does the disparity in political-party affiliation and sense of industry or personal support exist? Responses seemed to represent a mix of personal ideologies and concerns for specific industry-related issues.

Republicans won points as being more "pro business" and "business friendly," while spending more on defense and national security. For example, Stan Gaglione, a project engineer with Northrop Grumman, is very clear in his belief that the Republican Party is best for engineers.

"I have been an engineer for over 40 years and have always been more secure when the Republicans are in control," he says. "The most critical issues today, he believes, are economic stability and the optimum use of the nation's engineering prowess to prevent terrorists attacks and rid the world of terrorists in general.

Of course, there were also those who believe Republicans are harming the economy, blaming the GOP for the loss of American prestige abroad.

"Everything else being equal," wrote another anonymous survey respondent, "this translates into less demand for our products and services."

"I think that in the long run, the Democrats will be the most beneficial to the engineering community," says Carl Damm, a CAD designer for LeCroy Corp. "Generally, I would say Republicans, but this administration with Bush and Cheney are an economic train wreck waiting to happen."

One retired EE, Allan H. Kaplan, noted that conventional wisdom states that the Republican Party represents the interests of business. But he says that means "Big Business," not individual engineers (as distinguished, he says, from some engineering managers and executives). "Most of the engineers I have known in my 40-year career have been political conservatives and Republicans. I believe that Democrats have the better interests of the country at heart," he says.

On the other hand, Don Hiller, an R&D engineer for Agilent Technologies, thinks the Republican Party is doing more to keep the nation's economy healthy. "Ultimately," he says, "I think this is the most important issue for the engineering community, since the economy rests so heavily on the technical industry."

Hiller was among the engineers expressing concern about the trend toward offshore outsourcing. "I'm pretty sure that changes in this area are inevitable," he says. "Legislation to block these changes will have a stifling influence and the changes will happen anyhow, as ways are found around the laws, and the results would probably be worse. Or, we may strangle our employers and lose our jobs anyhow." He suggests trying to determine how the engineering workforce can contribute as these changes occur, which may mean a shift to working for engineering houses that compete with foreign engineering houses. "We may have to notch down our standard of living," he adds.

Greg Wilterdink, a senior power engineer for Credence Systems Corp., thinks there's little difference between the two parties as far as engineers are concerned. "I am responsible for my own destiny, not whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office," he says. "Frankly, all I really want them to do is leave me alone and stay out of my wallet."

Wilterdink says that as far as he's concerned, the federal government should only be charged with securing his liberty and national security. "That's it. The states and local government should take care of everything else without any intervention from Washington whatsoever," he says.

Like Wilterdink, Fred Timm, a principal design engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor, doesn't believe either major political party does a very good job of representing the industry or those in it. "They both rely too much on government regulation, ignoring the reality that engineering has become a commodity similar to the way manufacturing became a commodity in the 1970s," he notes. The difference today, he says, is that the U.S. is producing a better quality product than most of the world. "But that difference is becoming smaller every day."

Are you more concerned about politics than you were four years ago? Dave Felt, an engineer with the California Institute of Technology's Plasma Physics Lab, is concerned. When it comes down to which political party is more pro-business, Felt views Republicans as the "most obvious" choice today. "But then we see the CEOs of so many companies outsourcing design and technical support positions overseas, as well as laying off their older workers," he says. "As an older worker who has been laid off because of reductions in federal funding, I feel that rather personally."

As a result, Felt now believes the Democratic Party is doing a better job of supporting the engineering community. "I think the critical issues for EEs today are training, outsourcing, job satisfaction, and the reduction of company benefit packages," he says. "I would not urge young people to go into engineering, unless they are prepared to follow that up with business administration degrees."

With so much at stake, industry trade groups tend to be more vocal during political campaigns.

In June, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) laid out a "policy playbook" for Congress that addresses the future of U.S. high-tech innovation. It makes several recommendations for legislative changes it believes would boost American innovation, which it calls "our most prized intellectual asset."

The EIA also recently sent letters to Congressional appropriators who support full funding in the 2005 budget for the Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the ATP is designed to accelerate the commercialization of new technologies as well as encourage industry investment in long-term, high-risk R&D. Why the letters? Simple. President Bush's FY 2005 budget calls for zeroing-out ATP funding.

A technology brief issued by Senator John Kerry says the ATP should continue to be funded because it "provides support for projects that have high-payoff potential but often cannot get private sector support." About half of the project research areas funded by the ATP since its inception in 1990 have involved electronics, computer hardware, communications, and information technology. "The research that the ATP encourages is the foundation for future jobs and growth in this country," EIA President Dave McCurdy wrote to Congress.

The 700 member companies of the Telecommunications Industry Association have focused on broadband deployment as the critical issue for the communications industry and as a major stimulator of the national and global economies. Its overriding objective is to ensure that all Americans have access to current high-speed Internet access technologies in the immediate future and to next-generation broadband services by 2007.

IEEE-USA, which represents about 235,000 U.S.-based engineers, has hounded Congress and the Administration for years on several public policy issues. They include H-1B and L-1 visas, offshore outsourcing, intellectual-property (IP) protection, medical technology and health, education, R&D, energy, the environment, and retirement security.

In July, IEEE-USA sent President Bush, Senator Kerry, and Ralph Nader five questions:

1) What would you do as president to help high-tech professionals displaced by offshore outsourcing of engineering and information technology get to work? How would you ensure that America remains the world leader in new technology as cutting-edge research and development and design work moves overseas?

2) What are your priorities for federal investments in R&D, and what do you think is the appropriate level of federal funding for R&D? Specifically, do you believe there is a need for increased federal investment in R&D, and in what areas of science and engineering should that be focused?

3) Given that the unfunded corporate pension liability in the U.S. now exceeds $250 billion and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is operating almost $10 billion in the red, what would you do as president to ensure the security of pensions earned by American workers?

4) With more and more personal information, consumer habits, financial and medical records, and so forth now collected in databases and accessible worldwide, what do you believe is an appropriate expectation of privacy by individuals? What steps would you propose as president to ensure the privacy of personal information?

5) Despite high levels of high-tech unemployment and underemployment, corporate lobbyists continue to argue that there is a skills shortage, cite recent declines in U.S. engineering/computer graduates as evidence of a future worker shortfall, and ask for increases in the number of H-1B visas for entry of skilled non-immigrant guest workers into the U.S. What do you believe is the appropriate policy response to ensure that the U.S. maintains a strong and competitive high-tech workforce?

The 3000-member companies of the AeA (formerly known by the full name of American Electronics Association) have focused more on issues of interest to their members' top management. For example, they recently praised the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the Stock Option Accounting Reform Act (H.R. 35740).

"The overwhelming bipartisan vote shows that the House understands the serious economic implications of expensing options and the negative impact expensing will have on American workers who are granted stock options by their companies," says John Palafoutas, the AeA's senior vice president for domestic policy. The AeA is now asking the Senate Banking Committee to conduct hearings on this bill.

Unfortunately, with more than 10 trade groups lobbying separately for the industry (rarely do they work together), it's difficult to get anything accomplished. In fact, by most industry standards, high-tech is only now beginning to take politics seriously. Last year, according to public records, Fortune 500 technology companies spent nearly double the amount on lobbying as they did in 1998.

The same is true of industry companies, many of which have their own agendas. Several electronics industry stalwarts, such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems, didn't start hiring individual lobbyists until the mid-1990s. Others, including Qualcomm and semiconductor equipment maker Applied Materials, only recently joined the pack.

According to U.S. Senate Office of Public Records documents, Microsoft topped major technology lobbying spenders in 2003 at $8.7 million. Intel was second at $6.9 million, slightly more than IBM's $6.8 million. Right now, the hot issues for these companies are taxes, digital copyrights and restrictions, patent reform, and foreign workers.

"We are living in a rapidly changing world," says Ken Lyons, an Agilent Technologies engineer. "The technology that we saw as enabling a life of telecommuting has also enabled our jobs to be performed by less expensive workers in distant parts of the world. Engineers need to find ways to make themselves more needed at home to avoid more sad unemployment stories."

A design engineer who asked to remain anonymous says most of the engineers he deals with consider themselves Republicans because they believe Republicans are fiscally responsible. "But look at our current debt," he says. He expects rank and file engineers to vote Democrat because the party is more likely to make money available to higher education and R&D, both of which would help promote engineering. "They are also likely to see that jobs stay in the U.S. Job security is important, but the idea is past its time. There is no longer any such thing."

Despite the negative tone when discussing politics, most of the survey's respondents say they vote regularly, especially in national elections. But they profess minimum interest in actually participating in the election process. As Carl Damm of LeCroy put it, "I am active in politics in my living room, yelling at my television."

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