A short circuit for US engineering careers

Faced with foreign competition and an ever-faster pace, many engineers are dropping out of a once-safe field.

Paul Porter is closing the door on his engineering career - even though he's only 29. In recent weeks, his wife and five close colleagues were added to the more than 50,000 employees axed by his employer, Nortel Networks. That was the catalyst that prompted the New York native, already disgruntled with his choice of profession, to look into attending either business or law school.

"I spent seven years in school, and it resulted in a six-year career," says Mr. Porter, who feels his master's degree in engineering is little more than "a base."

It's a pattern that's recurring with surprising, and disturbing, frequency in a profession long known for job security.

Dissatisfaction with the field is growing rapidly. Layoffs, the influx of foreign workers, and offshore outsourcing of jobs have caused the pocket-protector set to either leave the profession in large numbers or seek new careers after being laid off.

And if that isn't enough to make engineers' neckties curl in Dilbert-style desperation, there's the nature of the work itself. In an era when high-tech gear becomes obsolete almost as fast as dairy products, many in the field feel they must advance at a steady pace or risk being cast aside.

It's a far cry from the era when engineering skills were a ticket to a lifelong salary and, some say, raises questions about America's ability to remain at the forefront of technology.

"For people who view this as a career, engineering is in worse shape now than it's been in years," says LeEarl Bryant, president of the Institute of Electronic and Electronic Engineers (IEEE-USA), which represents 235,000 professional members.

The downturn in the profession has taken many by surprise. In the '80s many felt there was an engineering shortage in the US to compete with Japan's dominance of technology markets. Then, the commercialization of the Internet created a hiring frenzy in which high-tech corporations gave huge bonuses to new hires and the employees who referred them. The IEEE-USA reports that such bonuses pushed the median salary for its members to $93,100 at the peak of the dotcom era.

Tough times; huge layoffs

But all that changed with the dotcom bust and the recession. This year, for example, telecommunications and computer makers have already slashed nearly 400,000 workers - and that's down from last year's 500,000 layoffs - according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Even Dilbert creator Scott Adams, himself a former engineer, has an eye on the trend. "The general balance of power has swung. Engineers had it for a while, now the bosses have it back," says Mr. Adams, whose comic-strip boss has hair shaped like a pair of horns on either side of his balding head.

Adding to the frustration of some engineers are the numbers of foreigners competing for jobs. In 2000, near the end of the high-tech boom, industry CEOs convinced Congress to nearly double the number of H-1B visas, allowing up to 195,000 skilled workers from India and elsewhere into the US. Some engineers contend that those CEOs kept many of those H-1B workers while cutting higher-paid US citizens.

"About 80,0000 engineers were unemployed a few months ago. If you take out the H-1Bs who came in, you'd have jobs for all of them," the IEEE-USA's Bryant says. The organization is lobbying Congress to lower the number of H-1B issued.

But US companies may continue to rely on foreign workers as the number of people entering the profession shows signs of decline. Demand for engineering courses is down in the US, according to the National Science Foundation statistics. In 2000, there were just over 59,000 engineering graduates compared to 63,000 students in 1996.

Not everyone is gloomy about prospects in the profession, however. "Salaries are up, and we're faring better [concerning layoffs] than many other professions," says Win Philips, chairman of the American Association of Engineering Societies.

Shorter careers than athletes

Many engineers are facing a challenge of a different sort. Graying engineers who have decades of work experience are as rare as a black and white TV. Even those under 40 are often considered old: A computer-science professor in California has statistics to show that programmers have careers not much longer than pro-football players.

"The half-life of engineering knowledge, the time it takes for something to become obsolete, is from seven to 2-1/2 years. Lifelong learning is critical in this profession," says William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. Still, he says, engineering is "an incredibly exciting and rewarding profession."

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