First it was manufacturing jobs that moved overseas. Then it was call centers and other services. Then it was information technology and software jobs. And next it could be highly skilled engineering positions.
There seems to be no end to the type of jobs that could be lost to cheaper foreign labor as populations in other countries become better educated and move up the knowledge ladder. Can anything be done to stem the tide?
That was a key question addressed at a conference looking at the future of engineering in the United States sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Arizona State University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering last weekend at Gold Canyon.
The consensus of academic and industry leaders who attended was not totally optimistic. Most of the participants think outsourcing is a trend that will continue, said Jami Shah, chairman of the conference and a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.
But he said at least highlevel engineering jobs will remain in this country if students are trained in the right skills and the science foundation invests in research that supports innovation.
The purpose of the Engineering Design Workshop was for foundation officials to receive input and recommendations from industry and universities about how they can target grants for research projects that will help keep engineering jobs in the United States.
"Nothing will stop globalization," Shah said. "Now we have to figure out how to operate in the new system."
Although the final report from the workshop will not be finished until June, some recommendations to the foundation are already clear.
The future of engineering in the U.S. will be concentrated in high-end tasks — the integration of systems and the development of new technologies, he said.
"There was a lot of talk at the workshop about making money off of intellectual property rather than by selling products," he said.
Executives in major industries said national borders are becoming less important in their business sectors. For example, auto officials said customers may be able to custom design their cars by 2030, selecting various features that they want at a computer terminal. Where that car is assembled is not likely to be important to the customer as long it contains the features he wants at a price he can afford.
"The term for it is glocalization," Shah said, which means producing globally for local needs. "We have gone to producing globally for the mass market. Now people want things that are specific to their needs, and we have to deliver that in cost effective ways."
The implication for American jobs is not necessarily good. More auto jobs are likely to move offshore, but that doesn’t mean the outlook is hopeless, participants said. Even if the percentage of American jobs in the auto industry declines, the size of the worldwide market will expand, so the actual number of U.S. jobs could expand, Shah said.
"It’s in our interest for other places to develop their economies," he said. "The overall demand will be greater, so there will be American jobs in auto design and research into new technologies like telematics, hydrogen power and intelligent highways."
A similar globalization process is taking place in the aircraft industry. American aircraft companies are increasingly becoming systems integrators, assembling subsystems made in other countries into the final products here. In the future, even the final assembly could move to lower wage foreign countries, Shah said.
But Americans can still be involved in the high-level system design and development of new technologies such as low-cost space vehicles or pilotless cargo and personal aircraft, he said.
"We haven’t figured out how to create cheap space transportation yet. But someone will in the next 25 years, and they’ll make a lot of money."
Delcie Durham, director of the engineering design program at the science foundation, said the final report from the workshop will help the agency develop an engineering design road map for the nation through 2030.
She said the agency wants to determine the types of knowledge and tools that engineering students and practicing engineers will need for the United States to maintain or increase its pace of innovation.
"Our hope is that we can provide the capabilities so that in both education and practice the nation remains competitive in the world economy," she said.