I talk to a lot of people in the United States in the power supply industry. These days, it seems, near the top of everyone's worry list is the question: “Will my job be exported to China?” As an example, Dell already spends most of its engineering effort on verifying Taiwanese designs, not doing their own. A few years ago, we heard about all the manufacturing jobs that were moving to China. Now, every day in the news we hear about China cranking out huge numbers of engineers from schools, and we have to wonder whether all of our engineering jobs also are doomed.
Ten or even five years ago, I had a ready answer for such concerns. “Chinese engineers are pretty low level,” I told people. “If it's difficult like a power supply, the American engineers end up doing the design work; and don't even think about creativity.” But, this isn't true any longer.
One of my friends who built up a semiconductor design house in Shanghai told me that he has hired engineers with only two years of experience who perform as well as U.S. engineers with 10 years of experience. The secret? In China, they don't mind working 12-hour days and on weekends. Hard work can make up for a lot of inexperience.
And then there's the cost. An engineer in China is making one-sixth of my salary, and the company doesn't have to spend much money dealing with environmental regulations, social security and the host of other U.S. regulations.
Now, according to an article in Electronic Engineering Times, the number of engineers coming out of Chinese universities isn't the 600,000 per year that has been reported; and it may very well be that number includes people in two-year programs, technicians and even empty seats in government-approved engineering schools. But, even with those caveats, that's still a lot of engineers.
There is also a downside to exporting engineering to China, of course (and maybe you'll want to bring this to your boss's attention). For one thing, it can be very challenging to manage an engineering team that is distant by a 12-hour time difference and 17-hour flying time. It takes special skills to manage a multinational team, and even more so when there is the potential for language difficulties. A more challenging problem is that there doesn't seem to be such a thing as a trade secret in China. Everyone knows everything. And patents aren't much better.
Step back a bit and take an historical perspective. In the 1980s, there was a lot of talk that the Japanese would take over all the U.S. jobs, because they knew how to do low-cost, quality manufacturing. But after a few years, the U.S. also learned how to produce high quality at low cost. Some of the jobs never returned, but Japan hit a natural limit as the cost of living rose there, to where living in Japan is now more expensive than in the United States. Nowadays, Japan too is worried about losing jobs to China.
Now all the talk is about China taking over from the United States. The difference from the Japanese case is that there are a lot more Chinese than Americans or Japanese. There are of course some natural limits for China, too. However, it will take decades before the standard of living in China can rise to anything approaching that in the West. During that time, we can expect to see engineering jobs — maybe most of them — continuing to migrate east.
For years, we've been worrying that the population of power supply engineers has been aging, and that there won't be any new engineers to do the work. So maybe having a bunch of excellent engineers in China is actually a good thing. There can be opportunities for co-design and mentoring — in both directions. Some engineering jobs, particularly in the military, will always remain in the United States (I hope). And probably your and my jobs are OK, at least until we retire. But just in case, I'm telling my children to try something like materials science, since nanotechnology will be big in the future. Design of high-volume power supplies in the United States may pretty much disappear.
Electronic Engineering Times, Jan. 18, 2006.
Ron Lenk has been working with power electronics for more than 20 years and is the author of the best-seller “Practical Design of Power Supplies.” He serves on the advisory board for Power Electronics Technology. The opinions expressed here are his, and do not necessarily reflect those of this magazine or Tyco. [email protected]