Training the Next-Generation Engineer: When Does it Begin and End?


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American engineering companies are seeing a severe shortage of the homegrown engineers required to compete globally. Just go into any company today and you’ll notice that increasingly, the engineers are foreign-born. Our local universities are seeing fewer and fewer American engineering students each year. Universities are also seeing a growth in female students. Over 50% of college student are now female, and women traditionally are not attracted to science and engineering majors.

What is causing this imbalance? Why is the U.S. unable to train as many engineers as it needs? How is the U.S. going to fill its engineering requirements? Today, the answer is importing engineers who have an education and an H-1B visa. But is this a long-term answer? Probably not. As foreign countries catch up with the U.S. in technical capability and manufacturing abilities, these engineers will want to stay home as the pay in their home countries increases. Any of those who did come here to work will be able to bring their experiences home to help speed this transformation.

Another way companies avoided filling their engineering need was by offshoring, first with the manufacturing and then the engineering functions. This created hollow companies that are devoid of manufacturing and engineering. These companies are controlled by marketing and accounting staff, with just a few manufacturing engineers whose only function is to interface with the offshore contractors. This model works very well for high-volume, low-risk consumer product companies, whose goal is to make the products as cheaply as possible with just the right amount of functionality. The communications between OEM and contractor is not the critical item in these cases; cost is the critical factor. More and more companies are finding that all products do not meet this definition and foreign, low-cost suppliers are not always the right answer to their design and manufacturing needs.

Today, we are reading more and more about onshoring products. Companies may not be starting their own manufacturing facilities, but they are keeping their cost low by using North American contractors. They are weighing the cost of doing business due to longer logistics lines that cross multiple time zones and languages. Many of these companies are bringing the design and manufacturing back in house. One company that recently announced this move is General Motors. Earlier this year, GM announced that they would be closing some of their design centers in Asia, and the company is now planning to rebuild that capability in Michigan. Many have speculated that this move was brought on by all of GM’s recalls. GM cannot afford any more bad publicity.

One avionics company set up a R&D center in Asia to cut engineering costs. They now are seeing higher costs because of poor quality work and the need to redo many designs. Their customers are now starting to feel the difference and the supplier is now wondering if the move was correct and is bringing more critical work back to the US.

How can the engineering community attract good young engineers? It starts at the K-12 level. Scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (STEM) need to be seen as the cool kids once again. (I’m showing my age now.) 

To read this entire article, which appeared in the August 2015 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.

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