Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Engineer Considers Jobs -- Not Steve

You may ask yourself, “Where are the jobs?” You may ask yourself, “What happened to the U.S. of A.?” You may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” “Where is that large automobile?” “This is not my beautiful home.” … Once In a Lifetime.

Jobs, jobs, jobs … what happened to the jobs? Who to blame? The President? The Congress? Wall Street? The 1%?

In a recent article in the New York Times, the president of M.I.T. stated this analysis:

The United Sates became the world’s largest economy because we invented products and then made them with new processes. With design and fabrication side by side, insights from the factory floor flowed back to the drawing board. Today, our most important task is to restart this virtuous cycle of invention and manufacturing.

What happened? Manufacturing moved offshore in a mass exodus the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The information age sped up this migration as it provided the electronic glue and communications that enabled “Designed in California” products (are you listening iStuff) to be built in China.

But more than that is going on. Offshore production has ultimately led to offshore innovation, with many companies investing in design centers and R&D facilities outside the United States that attract and nurture talented design engineers abroad.

I heard the story first at IBM when they started getting more revenue from over-seas markets and used that fact to justify trimming their U.S. workforce. “We need to operate in local markets to understand those market’s needs. We are a global company; we need to design locally and manufacture locally in these diverse parts of the world.”

Yea, I heard that. I even understood and possibly agreed. Our customers are over there, so we’ve got to be over there too.

What to do? Bring back the assembly line to the U.S.?

No, I’m afraid the assembly line is not the answer in a world of high-tech advanced manufacturing. And high-tech manufacturing depends on a marriage of science and engineering in cutting-edge fields.

Look to our universities, still the standard for education in the world. Note things like the fact that the majority of modern college graduates are women — not men. I’m not upset that women are taking their rightful place in the workplace, but rather concerned why there aren’t more men. What has happened to our primary and secondary schools and how are male students responding. How has our culture devalued the ideas of hard work and study in this “gotta make ‘em all feel good about themselves” trend.

Why are large multi-national companies like Microsoft lobbying so hard for more H1-B Visas to import scientists and engineers to the U.S. to work in our companies here? Is this unnecessary completion for American engineers or is there a real need for additional technologists that our native population can’t provide? I suspect the answer is a little of both sides. Companies benefit if they have more to choose from and the graduation of engineers and scientists here at home has not kept up with the demand.

I don’t regret much about my life, but I am sorry I did not spend more time in Silicon Valley, that marvelous incubator of innovation. IBM had facilities there, and I visited there often. But this area between San Francisco and San Jose continues to be a model for success to the rest of our country. I’ve hard of the silicon forest (Oregon), silicon mountain (Colorado Springs or even all of CO), and whatever Massachusetts is calling itself. This is the future. There is a disease that you can catch in Silicon Valley, and I would like to see an epidemic.

Never mind the advice to Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock. It is not plastics. It is analog circuits, memory, logic, power, microelectromechanical system devices, optoelectronics, EDA software, foundry manufacturing, semiconductor production equipment, electronic subsystems, displays, packaging and materials.

 Those are the jobs. The current unemployment rate is over 9%. For college graduates in general, it is less than half that at 4.x%. For STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) it is half that again which approaches the economic theory value of “full employment.”

Because of my background, anxious parents used to always ask me what their kids should study in school. I used to laughingly say, “keyboarding.” Now let me be serious. Study math. Study science. One thing I recently was reminded of in reading the current Steve Jobs biography was the fun that bunch of nerds in northern California had with the relatively low-tech stuff available in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. So stop playing video games and start thinking about writing video games. The internet has put the world’s libraries in your living room. Study, learn, play. That’s where the jobs are. By all means stay in school. Seek post-secondary training that fits your style and personality. School is an opportunity … it’s free for the first twelve years. Don’t waste them.

“But teacher, college is just not for me.”  Okay, what about Trade School, Technical School, On-line Classes, Junior College, the Library. Hit the books!

Those of you out of school, check out your opportunities. Consider going back. Don’t ask what the “President” — “Congress” — “Wall Street” — “The Rich” can do for you. Ask what you can do for yourself. Grab those bootstraps and get back to studying. School is not out for summer; school is not out forever; school has just started.

Originally written October 26, 2011.

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