I was reading the piece in Space News on the brain drain in engineering and in particular the aeronautical and space specialties [“Air Force, Contractors Seek Ways To Fight Brain Drain,” July 17, page A2]. The Defense Department and NASA leaders are frustrated, but they and Congress are largely responsible for the destruction of the engineering base in this country. Let me count the ways:
– Continual gaps in funding of long-term programs causing repeated layoffs and forced relocations or career changes for many engineers and scientists.
– Continuous understaffing of programs with the resultant massive “suggested” unpaid overtime hours, with no way to compensate the engineers. The jobs are underbid because there are so few government contracts (all wrapped up as megabuys so a loss destroys your company). In commercial business, there is comp time, overtime, bonuses, stock options and a variety of other incentives. Profit lines are so small in government business that most contractors get by only on the “free” engineering labor. Hours are so long and unplanned that most cannot take courses in evening or weekend venues to stay current. Employers are discouraged from helping to enable engineers to take courses by tight schedules and adverse reimbursement/tax credit policies.
– Destruction of the aerospace infrastructure. How many firms make military aircraft in the United States? Commercial aircraft? Boosters? We’ve consolidated the primes to so few that the loss of a contract causes the loss of a line of business for years. Many engineers are furloughed, find other careers or move to another area. Competition is so stiff that margins are razor thin and many subcontractors have left the aerospace market for more profitable business lines.
– International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) regulations. We can’t bid international jobs in many space markets without 24/7 guards at any sites for satellites outside the continental United States. At the same time, the U.S. government has failed to maintain any form of booster program or a steady business base of launches to maintain capability. We’re captive to the whims of government officials whose jobs and livelihood are a protected class while we have to lay off stellar people because there is insufficient U.S. government business. International customers don’t want the months of hassle only to get licenses with ridiculous restrictions and get cut off from spares and support if they later fall from administration favor.
– H1B visas. In the 1980s English-speaking engineers (England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, India, etc) were imported because of the “shortage.” Employers certified they couldn’t find enough U.S. engineers to work at artificially low wages. For years, the IEEE magazines were filled with want-ads for $15,000 a year masters- and doctoral-level posts at universities and research jobs when it was clear the only reason for the ad was to hire from Taiwan or South Korea. I see in the news now how the immigration issue is being spun to encourage hiring of all those skilled international workers through additional H1B visas. Perhaps if the companies had incentives to maintain the engineers’ skills instead of buying replacement workers at cheaper salaries then the problem might be addressed.
– Billable hours. If engineering were truly a profession like lawyers or doctors, we would be billing hours worked with rates that were competitive not set by government auditors. Most space and defense contractors have moved away from the higher cost areas and the university incubators to low-cost areas where engineers have only one employer in the area and no way to continue their education. Contractors cannot bill efficiency or productivity advantages because the system is based on the average, not the innovative.
– Career path. In many careers you can productively perform for 20 to 30 years with only a modicum of on-the-job or recurrent training to maintain your skill level. Most engineers have to move to management or leave the profession after 10 to 15 years. This is not unique to the United States — I have seen it in many Asian countries as well. There are no engineers over 35 unless they are managers. Where do the rest go?
New engineers may command $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Those with 20 to 30 years in engineering make less than $100,000. I believe that only the Post Office has flatter earning curves.
– Job Discrimination. The perpetual long hours take a toll on the engineers and many companies will not hire the 40-plus set because they are less willing or physically unable to perform to that tempo or have physical disabilities that require some accommodation. When I worked in Silicon Valley, I was struck by all of the buildings each with several handicapped parking slots but not a single handicapped employee among the hundreds of engineers working at each facility.
– Massive underfunding of research and development. Many efforts are not true research and development (R&D) but rather product development. Budgets are flat and have been for years — profit margins are thin providing little capability for companies to invest in real R&D and discouraging outside R&D investment.
How any parent, teacher, engineer, manager, executive or other influencer on young people (and I’ve been in all of these roles) could honestly encourage bright math- and science-oriented young people to enter engineering is beyond me. The earning and lifestyle advantages of business or the other professions make engineering careers a non-viable option. Government policies over the last 45 years have had a large influence in creating the “Atlas Shrugged” environment of today.
I encourage you to challenge these “leaders” about their policies rather than just giving voice to their frustrations.
Name Withheld at Author’s Request