Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Boom-Bust: New Paradigm for EE Jobs. (Perspectives: News and Views of the Current Research Technology Management Scene)

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Boom-Bust: New Paradigm for EE Jobs. (Perspectives: News and Views of the Current Research Technology Management Scene)

Article excerpt

The debate in Washington about whether the United States is producing and importing enough scientific and engineering talent is on the 2003 legislative agenda, with issues like setting the H-1B work visa level and homeland security R&D high on the list. Some observers believe that the U.S. has an acute shortage of technically trained talent and, even worse, that the "pipeline" of future scientists and engineers is in jeopardy. However, there are people, like recently minted Ph.D. life scientists, who are frustrated by a job market that seems only to offer endless post-doctoral fellowships.

This debate is not new; in fact, it seems to be the subject of discussion during every business cycle. Daniel Greenberg's book, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (U. of Chicago, 2001), examines the debate that ensued in the early 1990s. During that time, the National Science Foundation reported that there would be a significant shortfall of engineers and scientists in the coming decade. Skeptics, including current House Science Committee chairman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), responded harshly when it came to light that internal NSF analysts had doubts about the basis of the claims.

The problem with the shortage claims was methodological--the results were based solely on supply-side demographics of the baby-bust generation entering college during the 1990s. In fact, one could claim that the NSF reports were correct, and that the shortage was compensated by importation of technically trained talent through large increases of foreign graduate students and H-1B visa holders.

But the story is much older than that. My late father, who was an electrical engineer, often told me about "Ph.D.'s driving taxis" during the early 1970s. In fact, the careers and public policy division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE-USA, was created in 1972 in large part because of the high unemployment among EEs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (See www.ieeeusa.org/intro/history.html for more on IEEE-USA's founding.)

Who's Right?

So, who is correct in the debate over the quantity and quality of the U.S. scientific and engineering workforce? This is a question that requires a complex and nuanced answer, and one that I cannot answer here. Instead, I will present short- and long-term employment statistics for U.S. engineers, with a particular focus on electrical engineering and computer science.

At a recent National Academies' symposium on The Information Technology Workforce, although a number of speakers acknowledged that current demand for workers was very soft, most predicted spectacular long-term growth in demand. When it was time for me to speak, I began by recalling John Maynard Keynes's response to the economists who advocated that markets are self-correcting in the long run: "In the long run we're all dead." The point is not that the long run doesn't matter, but that the short run affects long-run outcomes.

IEEE-USA has been concerned that the current high levels of EE unemployment are causing many experienced engineers to leave the profession permanently. At the same time, industry is lobbying Congress on the shortage of qualified domestic EEs and computer scientists.

Industry lobbyists believe the shortage argument resonates well with the corporate executives who write the checks for their efforts. An influential industry lobbyist recently dismissed IEEE-USA's concern about unemployment by saying, "But one should not confuse short-term dislocations with a long-term structural problem ... the overall weakness in U.S. engineering education and people production suggests that IEEE has not been a strong group (in addition to many other reasons). Now they're focused on short-term pain for some members vs. long-term growth."

Short-Term Pain

The unemployment rates for EEs and computer scientists have risen above 4 percent in the first three quarters of 2002. …

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