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How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

Posted November 17, 2008 8:24 AM

Here's a quick and easy way to put an end to the growing shortage of engineering professionals in our society: offer to pay them more money. It's no accident that university students are more interested in medical and law degrees; these are the highest paying professions in our society. When some engineering firms wanted to recruit technical personnel for projects in Alberta's tar sands region — a cold, remote and desolate area — they found that raising the salaries to high levels got them all the recruits they needed. Amazing!

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#1

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/17/2008 8:11 PM

Actually, it s no accident that university students who can't do math go into law instead of engineering.

You'll get no argument from me about how increasing salary increases applicants.

I might argue that there is no "growing shortage of engineering professionals in our society."

There does however seem to be a growing trend in business to fail to value and pay engineers as part of their companies talent pool. So a lot of engineering professionals find themselves retired early or under employed.

But you seem to think that we are short engineers.

I just had a recruiter call with a position that was clearly 2.5 FTE's. A managerial authority component; a technical responsibility component, and a half a clerical reporting component. The company wanted to pay the person accepting this a salary that was well below median for the middle level of responsibility. I asked him if he was having difficulties getting people to stay on the phone,after hearing the job described and he said yes, how did I know?

What we are short of is enlightened visionary Leaders at the helm.

We are running over with impotent, closed minded cost cutters who think they can bully and cost cut their way to competitiveness. They are legion in detroit, where the engineering layoffs are usually first to be announced.

milo

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/17/2008 10:07 PM

I might argue that there is no "growing shortage of engineering professionals in our society."

Hi, Milo, your words is very very right. I agree to you.

This topic is also often ocured in our chinese goverment speakers and media. These bureaucrats shout year by year, month by month, but they dont know how little they pay for the skill engineers. so that these engineers prefer staying at home to work for them.

these officers are interested in recruit mba from oversea in higher salary, but they forget engineers are also important.

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#3
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/17/2008 10:10 PM

Good to hear back from you cnpower.

We are agreed

milo

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#9
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 10:07 AM

I have also chuckled when reading a job listing and the company wants someone who can do analog signal conditioning, digital design, embedded computing, FPGA's, VHDL, packaging, power distribution, FEA, and technical documentation. And they are willing to pay upwards of $60K a year. LOL

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#14
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 1:44 PM

Milo - Now that I've had my off topic rants, one mild, the other extremist I'd like to offer a constructive commentary.......

I think our universities, especially the public funded ones, need to reduce their focus on advanced engineering degrees and the heavy mathematics preparation they require and increase focus on engineering technology degrees to train real world engineers.

The latter would have a emphasize the skills, knowledge and ethics we expect a working engineer to actually use on the job. (please see my first post on what a project engineer has to do these days) I would still retain and even enhance within the curriculum the training that gives the engineer an unquestioning belief in the efficacy of the scientific method, critical thinking and objectivity and the personal discipline needed to perform complex tasks. I'd just temper down the requirement for learning higher mathematics skills which unfortunately shuts out many who are short in that aptitude. My reasons for this position are as follows:

1. On the job we seldom use mathematics beyond the level of intermediate algebra or plain trig. Those that would employ higher math solutions to problems (example analog electrical engineers) all too often cannot have their work properly reviewed and critiqued because of the lack of skills of their managers and must simply be trusted.

2. We have extensive computer tools into which skilled mathematicians have already placed the necessary complex mathematical functions. Once the reliability of these tools is proven they quickly take the place of the old methods in which the mathematical solution for each engineering problem had to be rigorously and laboriously developed and documented.

3. In my career I have encountered many very bright designers and technicians who knew they lacked the aptitude in math to get through a conventional accredited engineering degree program. They ended up being essentially a lower caste in the corporate culture with far to many doors to advancement closed by rigid staffing rules.

I got my BSME from a public university in NJ, USA that received about half of its funding from local manufacturing companies. The math curriculum was tough, as was the custom for all engineering schools 50 years ago. But sprinkled in there were some relaxing but ultimately useful courses having to do with industrial management. The course titles were "Staff Control" 1 thru 4", a somewhat demeaning legacy of the conflicts between labor and management in that period. Doing the same today I'd call them "Enterprise Management" or something like that. It was in these courses that we all got drummed into us the concept and ethics of the "Professional Engineer".

For those graduates who went on to management such curricula gave them very valuable early training. For the ones who didn't what they learned would help them immensely in just getting their engineering work done in a large and complex company.

There were other courses there like Engineering Accounting (heavy in cost accounting) and Business Law. These courses met once a week for an hour and required study out of all proportion to that lousy one credit. But the training they provided served me very well later in my career.

This is stuff you almost never see in the engineering schools today. 50 years ago the engineers went to work with some of the necessary credentials of a manager already taught to them. It was a wonderful pool from which corporations could draw managerial talent. Today it seems to be that engineering schools are designed not to train engineers but to sort them by intelligence (math will do that) and talent so that hiring could be done on that basis.

Once on the job supposedly the "cream " will naturally rise to the top in a "dog eat dog" competition where it can be easily dipped out by management for promotion. Meanwhile the rest sink into the oblivion of the loser or quit and go to the next job, often outside the engineering field. This is a big part of the problem.

BTW, one senior level "hands on" "lets build a robot or a stair climbing wheel chair" class is not the sole panacea. You need a real curriculum designed from the bottom up to produce working engineers rather than management strikers or technical paper writers in the image of their professors.

One other bad habit that American corporations have gotten into is loading up their engineers so heavily with stress and unpaid overtime that they often break. Any satisfaction they get out of their jobs is often crushed by the continuing stress of what they can't get done and the habit of failure. This makes for nice productivity statistics and sorts the pool of possible managerial candidates. It usually is good for the next quarterly report. And best of all, it reduces the need for direct hands on management. Let the engineers do their own management. As long as the manager gets his drawings, parts, reports, spreadsheets or Powerpoints he's happy. Shortcomings in these complex works can always be blamed on someone else in the organization.

Ed Weldon

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#17
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 10:57 PM

I agree that the real shortage is talented trained technicians. But i see that as a cultural parental problem- everyone wants their kid to have a college degree.

Go to a party and tell all present your kid is a machinist, electrician, etc, and everyone will look at their shoes, embarassed for you.

When our culture once again respects talent, and value added, and not just empty job titles, perhaps we will reenrgize interest in engineering fields other than "the hard way."

Thanks for sharing your well thought out analysis.

milo

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#23
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/21/2008 8:08 AM

For ten years I subscribed to the Canadian apprenticeship program to provide me with an employee capable of learning the machining trade.

I was actually talked into it by a representative of the educational system. That program was called Co-Op....and it was run by self-inflating idiots.

Some of the candidates could actually read (not sure if they could write though). Others were capable of tying their shoelaces. All had one thing in common....they could open a bottle of beer.

Under threat by the 'educational system' I eventually set up my own 'apprenticeship' program....hands on, sleeves rolled up and a library of books. Out of fourteen candidates One apprentice went on to get his mechanical engineering degree.

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#4

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 2:11 AM

There is truly a shortage of engineering professionals ......... to do drafting, technician work, clerical work, material expediting, simple computer tasks, entertaining of managers with fancy presentations and endless other sub professional tasks. Oh yes, and to fill a talent pool for the company's junior manager structure management program with people who have learned to think objectively and tolerate their superiors' need for ego food.

Perhaps there is an excuse for having an engineer do a lot of sub professional work in a startup company with a small number of employees and minimal administrative structure. But not in an established serious business enterprise.

Ever since the late 1970's it has been the style in engineering management to have "project engineers" even when the projects were essentially a one person efforts. The idea was to give the engineer better control of his/her project as well as broaden perspectives and learn more about the engineering and company functions. Supposedly having more control would provide greater job satisfaction for the engineer.

The hidden agenda there was to reduce the amount of time the engineering manager had to spend coordinating the efforts of design, analytical, drafting, technician, material procurement, and clerical functions in the organization. Net result expected? Less need for expensive managers. Less need for specialist support functions in the department.

It didn't really workout that way. The engineering manager to engineer ratio in US companies hasn't changed a lot since the 70's. We've laid off most of the specialized engineering sub- professional skills. Engineering managers spend less time managing. They spend more time communicating up the chain of command, especially in meetings. And being entertained. Rather than being for the purpose of reaching decisions meetings have become something else:

Theater! A conference room fills with several layers of managers as well as selected peers. A "project" engineer has spent upwards of a week producing a Powerpoint show (when he should have been doing real engineering work). Occasional questions and comments serve the purpose of stoking manager's egos, establishing pecking orders, scaring the low ranking attendees and generally producing entertainment at the level of a grade B movie and fuel for the office gossip. All to often no decisions are made and the show ends with a "good presentation Brownie" (You're great with Powerpoint even if your design sucks).

The real reason for the so called engineering shortage is a shortage of management and leadership skills where they should be.

Ed Weldon

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#5

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 4:42 AM

Where I am there are more people with 'manager' in their title than those without! There is no structure either!

On another note, slightly connected to this topic.

I was watching a program last night (on ITV - England) called 'how safe is your job'. This was concerned with the current credit crunch situation.

It is claimed that there are 600,000 unfilled positions in the UK, but that 1,500 people are losing their jobs daily. Work that one out!

The government were wondering how these jobs are not being filled - they should have listened to the masses for the past few years.

The program highlighted the point that these 600,000 jobs are either too poorly paid or that they are not based where the relevent expertise is available and thus not paying enough to entice people to relocate.

One lad, fresh from Uni with a 2:1 in Business and Economics (or similar) was going straight for manegerial positions and wondering why he was getting knocked back. Did it never occur that he might have needed a number of years experience under his belt before going for higher profile jobs?!?!

We have an Engineering Education Scheme here in England which promotes Engineering within high schools by getting a group of 4/5 students to work on a company project for 5 months. It gets them thinking and sometimes you get some very surprising results by people not directly connected with the company - only problem is that my company has decided not to fund the scheme this year.

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Kev Brown

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#6

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 5:19 AM

In 40 odd years of work, I could count the good managers I've encountered on one hand.

Encourage management to take a longer term view instead of trying to gain brownie points from their superiors.

Cut out a lot of the "protect my backside" paper warfare and thereby free up more engineers to actually do engineering for a short term fix.

Raise pay will solve the long term problem by encouraging the young ones ot go into engineering.

At the moment, why would someone tackle probably the hardest course in uni to receive poor pay and bad working conditions later?

It comes down to good senior management, rather than the current crop whose main definition of their job is to manipulate the system to gain the maximum return for themselves, and to hell with the company and the shareholders.

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#7

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 7:21 AM

When you have politicians with this attitude, we'll continue to have fewer students majoring in engineering.

Part of newspaper article about recent speech by US Senator Cornyn (Texas).

Cornyn also discussed illegal immigration, saying Congress needs to enact a policy that promotes U.S. interests.

"I do believe there is no substitute for knowing who comes into our country or why they're here," Cornyn said. "Now what we're dealing with is 20 years of neglect that have really come home to roost, with a vengeance."

But, Cornyn said, the U.S. should work to retain engineers and high-level professionals from other countries who train in the United States.

Senator Cornyn believes it's ok to save labor jobs for Americans, but not engineering jobs.

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#8
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 9:53 AM

"Senator Cornyn believes it's ok to save labor jobs for Americans, but not engineering jobs."

I refuse to buy into this victimhood approach. We need to be protected from foreign engineers? Puhleeeease.

Bring the foreign born engineers on. If they can do what I do better than me, faster than me, or cheaper than me for the same value created, they deserve to prevail.

But I have good blood in my veins, am a native english speaker, can do the math, have learned the lessons of experience from my many years of having my sleeves rolled up to get the job done.

If one's personal economy is based on the carrying out of repetitive, low value tasks, even a visa cap will offer no protection. They will out source the task across the border.

But if one truly creates value, adds value, and is a bargain to their employer for the value that they create, then they have nothing and noone to fear.

In my last job, my boss and i competed to see who earned their monthly salary back first, the loser bought lunch.Typically, the lunch was purchased on day 4 or 5 of the first week of the month. I am happy to say that I did not purchase him many lunches.

No, I am no longer there. As a matter of fact, niether is he. But within two weeks I had my current much better job.

I am not afraid of guest workers, I think that I can compete with anyone on problemsolving, anticipation of issues and remediation in my industry and certain others. I speak and write clearly. I am an accomplished generalist with valuable specialist skills.

What I am afraid of is well intentioned policy wonks destroying the economy by ill considered, fear based policies.

My forbears had no guarantees when they walked across the Appalachian 's in the 18th century to get here, and I don't need any government guarantees to protect my "right to work."

I add value. I get paid.

What's to be afraid of?

milo

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#10
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 10:38 AM

Although you may be the most qualified engineer to do your job, you can still be replaced by a foreign engineer. You're attitude is what Senator Cornyn likes. You and he and his supporters believe that if things can be done with cheap foriegn engineeers, then it's better for the country because it reduces inflation. Supply and demand works when it's only tampered with to keep it fair. So it should be with engineers. Your attitude is one of "no borders". Although "one world" is a noble ideal, if we dropped our borders completely, our standard of living would take a dose dive-including yours.

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#12
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 10:58 AM

We can agree to disagree.

"Supply and demand works when it's only tampered with to keep it fair."

I have no idea where this "only when its tampered with" corollary comes from, but I don't buy it.

We do live in big world, and I'm cool with finding my place in it. I dont need big brothers help thank you very much, hes more likley to hurt and distort than to really help me.

milo

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#13
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 11:56 AM

I've been telling people for a long time:

"If you're not going to give them a piece of the action, don't let them buy machine guns"

I usually just get that deer in the headlights look. It's ironic that this response often came from friends who were doing quite well, thank you, from the performance of the global economy. (BTW, my gun owning friends like to reply "Machine guns are illegal!" to which I say "I hope you're happy with that definition while someone is blowing holes in the side of YOUR house with an AK47")

quote: "if we dropped our borders completely, our standard of living would take a dose dive-including yours"

Look up from that narrow focus at what is happening around you in the last month! The nose dive is going on as we speak.

Ed Weldon

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#18
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 11:21 PM

Milo -- I guess this isn't as much of a reply to your post as it is a continuation of the things you are talking about.

For the 42 years I played in the game we struggled with trying to fit round pegs into square holes. Engineers always wanted to be treated as professionals; but they mostly found themselves working for large corporate employers who viewed them (with a few rare exceptions) as just another highly trained skill group. We tended to look at ourselves as having professional parity with doctors and lawyers who tend to deal with individual customers.(that's changing with the growth of HMO's and large law firms)

But we were not anywhere near the same. We needed to align ourselves with and therefore work for large organizations set up to undertake complex engineering efforts. As such our individual negotiating power (for compensation and working conditions) was very weak. We tended to be too proud and even arrogant to gather together for collective bargaining (with a few industrial exceptions like aerospace); so we now find ourselves at the mercy of our corporate employers.

Oh sure, a few top guns (I suspect Milo, you are in that league) can effectively negotiate on their own. But most can't. This is where engineers are today. They do not even have any effective say in government policies lacking any serious lobbying presence in Washington, DC. The final insult is the H1B program. Can you imagine for one minute the UAW allowing that to affect their members without a squeak? Small wonder so many US engineers work long overtime hours without pay and at subprofessional levels that make little or no use of their expensive and difficult university education. How in the world can most ordinary engineers compete with a cheap foreign trained engineer who will jump through hoops for an opportunity to come to the USA and work and possibly even become a legal immigrant? Most of us can't.

This so called engineering shortage is and always has been a contrivance of corporations which naturally seek to cut costs and maximize profits and university educators who seek to expand enrollment to fuel the success of their institutions. The few times when a high level of economic activity actually stretches the supply of engineering jobs beyond the limit of available talent are simply not a justification for an ongoing program that leaves thousands of qualified engineers jobless because their resumes are not a 100% perfect fit for the few job openings that can't be filled with cheap and easily manipulated H1B foreign engineers.

And, I might add that the professional classification leaves working engineers out from under the umbrella of state employment laws that require overtime pay for salaried employees that are not management or "professionals". Sadly the only time most working engineers get to be treated like professionals is when the payroll department conveniently classifies them that way so they don't have to pay them for overtime.

I've said for a long time, "Few things are as sweet to a businessman as free labor." It applies here.

And I say to the engineers that complain about their jobs and even some who don't, "Enjoy your so-called professionalism, your pride, your arrogance and especially your individuality. You are paying a big dollar price as well as a personal human health price for them"

Ed Weldon

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#20
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/19/2008 10:54 AM

You make many good points.

I will not try to refute them, most stand on their own.

But I still do not see the advantage of the "cheap foreign trained engineer who will jump through hoops?"

There is a cost to get here, they will be paid an engineering rate, not a burger king rate, and their ability to communicate successfully and understand full and rich context puts them at an effectiveness disadvantage and an effectiveness disadvantage per dollar spent too.

If not, then they are a bargain and if it was my shop, I'd hire them too.

I don't think that I am particularly special, and I have seen the axe fall, "the new plant is built why do we have so many engineers again?"

But while the issue was originally framed as a problem for engineers as a class, (macro view) I see it differently in the "micro" (individual) view.

Perhaps the question might better be what do engineers need to do better to demonstrate the value that we add to today's organizations.

I would suggest that two answers might be help our companies

1) "intelligently manage risk"

2) "continuously improve the quality and efficiency of the people and processes under our authority"

Asking "What can I do today that will make my company the most money ( or avoid the most unwarranted risk)?" is something that should be on every"salaryman's" mind, don't you think?

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I sense and share your frustration at the lack of respect that the profession seems to have attracted to itself.

Great conversation.

milo

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#11

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 10:43 AM

I agree with most of the comments posted here, but one other factor is missinig. I've seen "Help Wanted" ads for Sr Engineers state that 5-7 yr experience is required. 5-7 yr??? In my opinion, a Sr Engineer should have at least 10 yr in the same industry or 15-20 total. By reducing the competence level to less than half of what it should be, companies are creating a serious problem with more experienced, competetent, engineers who want to stay in that field.

I saw a poster recently that listed facts about various occupations. The average engineer stays in engineering only 9 yr. If we were given appropriate credit, compensation, and recognition, we might not change careers so quickly.

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#15
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Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 8:57 PM

From Canadian point of view, America (and Canada) prefer to hire foreign engineers because its cheaper for companies who hire them and its a big business for governments. Government doesnt have to support a lot for its own educational institutions to educate its own citizenry. Its immigrants' countries that pay for education. Thats why education here is rather expensive. Furthermore, when immigrants are comming over, they pay 'tax' fees and other fees for coming over to the country. Plus they become a cheap labour that has high degrees with work experience. For 13 years I am underemployed (means I never had an engineering job) but in current economic situation I should not be complaining. Now I am totally discouraged about engineering career. I've lost interest in it. I dont believe that rising a salary will help here. In capitalist world, only the fittest survive therefore it doesnt encourage any community responsibility or encuorangement and nourisishing for the youngsters to become somebody they want to be. Even if engineer is on its own, the excessive control by beurocracy (licensing offices) and very incompetent (almost useless) patent office makes engineering look like a joke. Practical experience counts in the company. Degree means nothing. Its just a label.

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#16

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/18/2008 9:08 PM

Have you all read your capital history? its really not a new topic, but old, old one which has been proved.

Our china companies welocme foreign intellegent to work with us in china. although we also have heavy pressure at job problem.( cinese media say so at least)

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#19

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/19/2008 10:06 AM

Suggest you read into global news. Here in the US ,outsourcing has done its job well at dumping engineers in main-street, regardless of job pay levels.

Tell the engineering community what the return on investment will be for their hard earned costly engineering degrees. Tell them where there will be jobs interested in the technology they offer. Tell them how many times will they have to retool academically, so they can keep a job without loosing to outsourcing practices. Tell these people that IF they retool, the global economy will give them a chance to recover their education retooling costs.

In 30 years of my career as engineer, I have retooled to work in Aerospace, Telecom, Bio Medical, Consumer Electronics, Boat Industry, Water Industry, Acoustics Industry. I have retooled to maintain self viable , trainable, accountable for what I do as an engineer. All of it to respond to job / skills flexibility. All of these continues to dwindle down as my employers / clients shift from one product line to another. Regardless of the opportunities and benefits offered to do the job as good , if not better, than the national / international competition.. it all boils down to " job gone overseas to reduce cost".

We want hundreds if not thousands of engineers for??? for how long???

Provide a continuous opportunity to work in the field and there will be a stable supply of talent. And yes.. we do like to work and play hard....and yes we also like to put

a roof over our heads, feed / care for our families . A reasonable salary would be nice

I'll stop before sarcasm steps in

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#21

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/20/2008 11:01 PM

The shortage of Engineering manpower is not a global phenomenon. Yes economical solutions like increasing salaries will sure work. All progressive companies look to outsourcing or setting up shop in developing countries like India to get engineering services at a price starting from $20 an hour. For really low end work like simple modeling the rate may go down if volume is assured. Such companies (some such companies are www.ltees.com www.satyamcomputers.com etc) have been identified by several big guys in engineering and they have found economic sense in retaining the top-level planning in-house and outsorce the basic engineering ativities. At times high end works (scratch to solution) can also be outsourced if you clearly know what the end requirement is- of course with some guidance from you.

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#22

Re: How to End the Engineering Skills Shortage

11/21/2008 2:23 AM

Let me ask how much is an engineer worth?

This is a question that I and many engineer friends and colleagues have argued endlessly without conclusion. The engineering discipline has been under attack by other professions and this is a normal phenomenon globally.

Unfortunately, other professions are prevailing because engineers have let them win. We are our own worst enemies and that is the cause of our poor pays. In my current employ, there was once a standoff between engineers and technicians concerning pay and career advancement. At that time, engineers were paid a higher salary than all other professions. Guess what happened- the management decided to harmonise salaries and career progression of all disciplines. Currently, even lawyers are paid practicing allowances but Professional Engineers aren't.

I sought to find out what really determines ones worth in the context of an organisation or industry here goes:-

Income= K + influence + leadership + entrepreneurship

Where K is a constant determined by your employer and is a function of your education and experience.

Unfortunately, the current engineering discipline teaches us to innovate, specialize, and master in order to excel. This means that by training and experience, we learn more to rely on ourselves and our own abilities rather than on others.

That means we score very poorly in leadership and influence and mostly this is caused by a poor self esteem or inferiority complex despite our qualifications. I have seen engineers fight each other, demean each other e.t.c It has always been about which college did you get your degree, are you a P.E, are you experienced than me, your design sucks.

While we are busy fighting ourselves, the arts and business type have been amassing influence and come up with the machinery to keep engineers at the bottom of the food chain. For example While non-technical departments were splitting up, some engineers fought hard to keep their department together, now nontechnical departments outnumber technical departments. Guess who calls the shots.

For as long as engineers do not deal with their insecurities and learn leadership and influence, the profession is condemned to meagre wages.

My appeal to you all engineers is-Change! You've got what it takes! Take Charge! Fight for your profession! Lead, not destroy!

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