This morning's Wall Street Journal carried a short opinion piece by Robert J. Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin, complaining how the US is short of engineers and therefore falling behind the rest of the world in technological innovation. His list of remedies is all the usual: Spend more on education, bring in more foreign engineers, work harder. The only thing he doesn't suggest is the one thing no CEO will ever allow himself to say: Pay more for engineering talent.
We are not short of engineers. I can say this with confidence because if we were, engineering salaries would be going through the roof (they're not), engineers would be the constant targets of headhunters urging them to jump ship (they're not), there would be no unemployed or underemployed engineers (there are many) and more students would be entering engineering degree programs. (They're not.) Between the lines I hear the constant mantra coming from everywhere in the business world: We want employees who are young, childless, and without significant medical problems, who are willing to work 80-hour weeks for under $50,000 a year.
If we are indeed falling behind the rest of the world in technology (and that's a highly debatable issue) the solution is not to generate more engineers, but to do more engineering. And that will require a whole raft of changes in the way business is done in the US:
- Our patent system is hugely corrupt, and is actively hindering technological progress.
- Obstructionism under the guise of phony environmental concern is holding back technology in many vital areas, especially energy and transportation.
- Monopolistic powers held by telecommunications firms are holding back what we can do with cell and wired Internet technology. Just look at what they're doing in the Pacific Rim if you don't think this is the case.
- Tort law is like molasses in the crankcase of every single area of American endeavor. Employment lawsuits, environmental lawsuits, product liability lawsuits are more and more disconnected from reality and any reasonable concept of justice—companies can be sued and destroyed for things they never did and over which they have no control.
With all of that hanging over your head, engineering just isn't much fun anymore. Nor does it pay especially well. Companies that say, "Well, we can't afford to pay our engineering staff more than we already do" always seem to find another $10 million to throw at the CEO or other top exective staff. No wonder all the bright young kids want to go into finance or management.Everybody—CEOs in particular—must remember that labor is a market. You can only offer so little for wages before you get no takers due to the time and effort it takes to develop the skills required to do the job. I think we're at that point in a number of fields, primarily engineering and medical support. I have reflected that when markets get efficient enough, they force prices down to the point where nothing works especially well. Yet if you artificially raise prices to the point where everything works well, large chunks of the population can't afford the product. There's obviously a sweet spot somewhere (there always is) but the kicker is figuring out how to find it.