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engineer shortage, or competition?

OK, let's look at this issue of the lack of engineering talent from another direction. Here's an excerpt from the article fauxklore cited on the shortage of aerospace workers:

"Second, the industry must take a hard look inward. The aerospace giants have become supremely bureaucratic and have begun emulating their largest customer, the Defense Department. They have lost something in the process, and it is no surprise that young engineers are drawn to more dynamic and entrepreneurial industries."

I have made this observation in past posts – some engineering fields lose candidates to other engineering fields because of a perceived, if not actual value of those fields. For example, you have people (within and outside the US) constantly throwing resumes at Google just to work on arguably mature technology like spreadsheets or mobile phone applications, rather than having the opportunity to work on cutting-edge optics or communications technologies. Why would they do that? Well, let's look at what Google has to offer the young engineer:

  • 20% free time to work on their own project (that they can justify would enhance Google's business)
  • free meals
  • free transportation to/from work (in some areas)
  • the opportunity to work with ambitious, highly motivated geeks
  • potentially lucrative stock options
  • exposure to startup culture (for those thinking of eventually starting their own business)

Let's not forget that Google is expanding into other areas of engineering besides software: they have initiatives in green energy, the US electrical grid, even space exploration.

So for those of you working for the USG, or for government contractors, what is your pitch to the young engineers? What do you offer that Google does not? Why should someone work for you instead of for Google?

When I worked at SRI during the mid-to-late 1980s, I worked mostly on government contracts, as did my colleagues. Some of those projects were the forerunners of modern Internet technology. Seems exciting, right? Something engineers ought to want to do. However, most people I talked to who were looking for jobs did not want to work for SRI. Instead they wanted to go to Sun, SGI, Cisco ... the Googles of their day. In fact, several people I worked with left SRI to go work for the younger, more exciting tech companies of that time.

Should the US Congress perceive this as a shortage of engineers, or just people choosing a particular engineering subfield because they think it is more fun and lucrative?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2008 10:08 am (UTC)
My impression is that people who left places like SRI for Sun, SGI, Cisco, etc. were largely chasing money. Of the people I know who went to work for startups, exactly one mentioned looking for a more exciting work environment, while several drooled over stock options (that often never materialized).

Why do I do what I do and have no interest in working for the googles of the world? I'm of the generation that grew up with space exploration. The first news story I remember was John Glenn orbiting the earth. And nothing could compare in thrills to the moon landing. I remember standing in the 18th story of a mobile support tower of a Titan rocket one day (on a work related tour) and thinking how cool my job is.

I have lots of free time to work on my own projects, but that varies with jobs within my company. The nature of my job is largely "find something useful and do it." I get a transit subsidy (as do govvies, by the way) which makes my transportation to and from work nearly free. I work with ambitious, highly motivated people, many of whom have actual people skills instead of being maladapted geeks. And I'm not routinely expected to work 100 hour weeks with the faint promise of stock options that may never be worth anything.
Sep. 26th, 2008 03:10 am (UTC)
"My impression is that people who left places like SRI for Sun, SGI, Cisco, etc. were largely chasing money."

OK, I'll give a few examples. I didn't get the impression they were largely chasing money. OTOH, maybe they were.

Dan Heller aka argv created mush while were on a field exercise in 1986. He could have been implementing a network management application, but implementing an email client was more fun. He developed all sorts of other things that made their way into the open-source community. Eventually he went to Sun because he felt unappreciated at SRI. He went on to form a startup.

Another coworker Glenn got really burned out managing projects in which software was written that was used in field exercises like the one I described above. (One of those projects was the deployment of Cisco router technology over low-speed phone lines for US forces stationed in Germany.) He left for SGI.

The most famous example is probably Ed Kozel, who realized that Cisco was moving further and faster than SRI in the networking arena, so he left for Cisco. He eventually became the CTO.

There were others. For example, even one of your very best friends was looking for a new job around 1989. She inquired into SRI, but didn't see much of an opportunity. She went to Cisco about a year later.

Also, is there something wrong with chasing money? Maybe people see this as an opportunity to make good earnings that can provide them with financial security for the rest of their lives. In that regard, it's no different from personal investment – instead of investing your money, you're investing your time and intellectual prowess to provide for your future.

But you still haven't answered the question of how you would sell what you do to people who want to work for startup culture tech companies, or the like. Picture yourself at a recruitment booth, with, say, Google on one side, and Apple on the other. You know those booths will be packed with kids who want to work at those companies. Some of those folks may come over to your booth asking what your company has to offer. How are you going to convince them that they should come to work for your company? And if you cannot (and no one else can), is this a reason that the US Congress should sponsor additional visas? Is it possible that their response could be "the marketplace for tech talent is functioning competitively?"

Incidentally, did you read any of the responses to the Jane Harman article? Most of them are (or claim to be) from current and former aerospace engineers. They don't offer a ringing endorsement of the field.
Sep. 26th, 2008 10:00 am (UTC)
There isn't anything wrong with chasing money if it works. You mentioned my close friend who went to Cisco (and who was, by the way, one who I wouldn't characterize as chasing money - I gathered she was rather bored at HP). She made a lot of money - though she worked 100+ hour weeks and destroyed both her health and her relationship at the time in the process - and has a lot of freedom now. But at about the same time, there were several other people I knew who went to startups. Most of them endured a year of prosperity before nearly a year of late paychecks followed by the company going completely under.

Somebody looking to work in a startup culture would not be a good fit in my company, since we don't produce anything except reports and briefings. Nor would they necessarily fit in with the culture at the big 5 defense contractors, who Jane Harmon wrote about (and who the more disgruntled commenters were referring to.) But there are startups in the aerospace industry. The culture at at least two of those agencies we don't talk about is highly entrepreneurial.

I think the security issues are a real barrier for these kids. Aside from the stereotypical alternative lifestyles of computer types that can scare them away from the clearance process even if it doesn't disqualify them, the places doing cool stuff are inherently low profile. I remember when my friend, Brian, decided to leave academic physics. I asked him what he was interested in doing and he said he thought remote sensing would be cool. I said, "well, if I wanted to do that, I'd go to ERIM." He hadn't heard of them but followed up and did, indeed, go to work there.

Though, given how many launch failures Elon Musk's SpaceX has had, maybe it's better that the people who want to be in a startup culture make buggy software instead of blowing up microsatellites paid for by our tax dollars.
Sep. 25th, 2008 01:20 pm (UTC)
I work at a contractor, albeit a small one (fewer than 100 people, specialized area of work).

We have nice benefits. We get 3 weeks/vacation a year (it goes up after five years), and you can carry some over to the next year. We have health and dental coverage, on really good plans, with the premiums fully-paid. We have partial tuition reimbursement for work-relevant classes. We get fully reimbursed for professional society membership. We get funds to purchase shiny new equipment. We have a profit-sharing plan (in which one is fully vested in five years). We can get transportation subsidies if we use the T. Also, we're not expected to work a million hours a week (I've worked ~40 for the vast majority of weeks I've been here).

I don't know how that compares to Google, but it's better than most of my friends get at random non-contractor software companies.

I like the benefits, and the good salary, but more than that, I like the cutting-edge research. I like the opportunity to go to conferences, to get published, to write grant proposals. I would generally rather work for a place that does research/cutting edge work than a place that works on mature tech.

A few of my friends have worked at bigger contractors (as opposed to my specialized little one), and a lot of them haven't enjoyed it. And it's not because of what perks there are or aren't. They've hated it because their company is more focused on process than results, or has a hyper-"patriotic" (i.e. right-wing superhawk) culture, or they were sexually and/or racially harassed. Maybe the problem isn't that the Googles of the world have better perks. Maybe the problem is that the culture of certain contractors sucks to the degree that no level of awesomeness of the work could compensate for it (admittedly, I'm only talking about two or three companies here, but my friends who work for non-contractors don't seem to have these problems).
Sep. 26th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)
Before more visas are granted, shouldn't the contractors improve their cultures so it is more likely that they attract competent engineers? The first two reasons you gave for your friends hating working for contractors are certainly disincentives for working at those places when there are other viable alternatives; the third reason is downright illegal. And the liberal, alternative lifestyle-friendly tech startup culture is a powerful draw.

I wish there was more of an opportunity to bring these sorts of issues to the table in the US Congress. These issues should be part of the debate. There are other reasons why engineering companies have trouble recruiting and retaining qualified engineers that need to be brought to light. Hashing out these issues might bring about productive reform.
Sep. 26th, 2008 03:04 pm (UTC)
Before more visas are granted, shouldn't the contractors improve their cultures so it is more likely that they attract competent engineers?

They should improve their cultures anyway, but presumably they don't see their cultures as in need of improvement. I'm sure that the legions of people hired to work on process appreciate that part of the culture*, and that the superhawks appreciate that part of the culture (and it would be rather sticky to try to enforce a certain political climate on companies, even if their current one is discouraging young techies from coming there). And changing sexual or racial harassment requires someone to be willing to press the lawsuit (a lot to ask of a young person just trying to get by who could more easily just quit and go somewhere else), and can still be difficult.

Bringing these issues into the debate requires someone with power actually making the connection between them and hiring problems, and people in general seem to be worse at making connections than I would expect. And a lot of people would argue that the culture needing to improve doesn't mean that we should stop trying to bring talented people over on visas (personally, I object less to visas than you do, but would like to see tighter regulations on what companies have to do before they get to take advantage of them).

*This is actually a systematic problem, which makes it more clear how it could be fixed, but probably less likely that it will be, because it requires the government changing its mindset. Basically, the amount of process in place is a (significant) part of what's used to judge who gets a contract, with the big contractors. There's even a scale for it. The more process you have, the more likely you are to be awarded the contract.
Sep. 25th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
I should also note that Jane Harmon's response applied to the big contractors. There are startups in the aerospace industry, too.

My impression is that the work environment at the big companies is highly dependent on what smaller group within the company one is in. It isn't unusual for people to follow their managers from one place to another.

Corporate culture is a very important part of how happy one will be at any job. Sadly, I think that few fresh college grads realize that.
Sep. 26th, 2008 02:40 am (UTC)
I didn't choose to work for a big government contractor (we were bought), but a major reason I stayed is stability -- I'm both a specialist and old enough that I'm not all that confident of having decent prospects if the startup I hypothetically jump to then goes belly-up in a year or two. Could I be doing work that's more exciting at a startup? You bet. Would there be lots of "are we going to be here in six months" stress? You bet. Am I willing to accept the latter to get the former? It's got to be a pretty awesome proposition, and so far that hasn't happened.

Note that I would leave my current company if the work were actively offensive in some way; this isn't a "stability at all costs" argument. But I'm willing to accept a little more "eh" for the higher confidence that I can retire from here if I want to.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )