Letters: Reader Feedback – 2007-07-01

More on “Engineering Shortage: Employers to Blame?” I was shaking my head up and down saying yes to myself as I was reading your article. Unfortunately, many companies are public and have to work on a quarter-to-quarter basis for “shareholder wealth.” That's no way to run a company properly, but it's the way most businesses are run—even if they're private.

By Staff July 1, 2007

More on “Engineering Shortage: Employers to Blame?”

I was shaking my head up and down saying yes to myself as I was reading your article. Unfortunately, many companies are public and have to work on a quarter-to-quarter basis for “shareholder wealth.” That’s no way to run a company properly, but it’s the way most businesses are run—even if they’re private. I hope that your article manages to touch a few people and get them thinking. I can hope, can’t I?


When I took economics as an undergraduate, the professor made a big deal of saying that the claim of a shortage made no sense unless the price was stated. For example, it makes no sense to say there is a shortage of cigars, but it does make sense to say there is a shortage of good five cent cigars.

What I think you are seeing is employers claiming a shortage to justify more H-1Bs to replace expensive Americans.


You are so right! Degreed engineers are golden. Experienced degreed engineers are diamonds. Each week I receive several calls, e-mails, invitations to interview, etc., which I decline. I try to get hired my way:

I am an electrical engineer and a P.E. in 33 states and the District of Columbia. I work at home, out of my home office. Many of my clients started out looking for full-time engineers on-site, but came around to the idea that there are lots of engineers like me, available, but self-employed. I work either 1099 or W-2.

It’s an electronic world and work goes in both directions at the speed of e-mail, fax, overnight FedEx, Express Mail, etc., etc. True, sometimes site visits or meetings at clients’ offices are required, but 99% of my work is at home. What’s the difference where the actual design and engineering is done? Outsourcing is a fact of doing business in today’s business world.

Employers need to be made aware of this resource and the advantages to them. Most, if not all of us working this way have substantial experience and expertise in our fields.

I will try to avoid full-time on-site employment as long as I can, hopefully forever… well, almost. Great editorials. Please do more.


Don’t become the aider or abettor to this popular lie. Companies must prove that no one is available in order for them to hire a non-citizen. Other times, they have hired a non-citizen and must advertise for the job in order to keep him in the United States.

The exception is when they can steal an engineer from a competitor. They want engineers who, for a nominal salary, will work Saturdays and Sundays at no extra cost to the company with nights and overtime expected. After breaking a competitors patent, getting two patents that locked the competitor out of the market, and after the largest sale and second largest sale in the company’s history, I was let go. As a token of their kindness, they bragged that they were going to pay me for the vacation days that I had not taken. The company has been resold several times and the entire engineering department is no longer there. The competition now owns the company.

There was a time when a company would take an engineering candidate to lunch, not to check on his manners, but to try to induce him to work for them. This is not a new story.

[I remember] back in engineering school, where there were very large freshman classes. The chemistry and physics courses thinned those ranks. Many suddenly decided to study business. When they end up as some kink of an administrator, they get their revenge. Engineers became a commodity in the mid 1970s.

Unfortunately many engineers have a skewed talent range: good at engineering and normal in communications. The oily tongued managers don’t have the slightest idea what a good engineer does.


Your editorial about employers having the first responsibility for an engineering shortage is right on the money. We are a small (13-person) office competing in a market with the big national firms such as Fluor, Jacobs, Day Zimmerman, Lockwood Greene and others. So we have to compete for people against the best. We can compete, and it isn’t only about the money.

However, we also are competing for engineering talent against the manufacturers— BMW, Michelin, BASF. The other truth is that we have had the best economy in our area in 20 years and there really aren’t enough engineers here. This is good! It lets us begin the cycle of improving the fees we charge—long overdue—that will lead to better contracts.

As you well know, we are in a dynamic world that is always in motion. So there is not an answer today good for tomorrow. The employer is the key player in managing change and adjusting. The buck does stop with us.

The one thing that I do take issue with is your use of the word “blame.” Why is our society obsessed with blaming somebody for a current condition? Engineers are problem solvers, not blame identifiers. For as long as I have been an engineer, we have had an engineer shortage in one field or another, and one location or another. What makes a shortage—demand. Demand is driven by the market and employers’ responses to it.

Blame is wasted energy. Blame never solved a problem; it’s just an excuse. Hooray for the engineering shortage. It sure beats a surplus!


When a society puts off the necessities for as long as we have, ignores basics as long as we have, and then all of a sudden wakes up, it realizes that we are going to need lots of engineers. Wait until those who just “came to” fathom how much we must do. What you currently see is only a minute indication of what is going to be necessary.


The engineer shortage is real, but the reason is complex and mainly societal in nature. As a registered mechanical engineer since my first EIT in 1949, I have had the opportunity, as an employee of major corporations, as member of a commercial consulting firm and as an independent consultant, to observe the competence of engineers across the board.

During the decade beginning about the onset of the Vietnam experience, my alma mater was experiencing a serious decline in the number of applicants for engineering school and a nearly catastrophic drop in the “quality” of those applicants. During a 1965 business trip to a major customer, I had a chance to visit the school. My old professor of structural analysis—yes, in those days mechanical engineers were required to be more than just a little conversant with civil, electrical and structural disciplines—was packing his office.

He explained that, as head of the Civil Engineering department, he made it his business to teach one freshman class each year. Here’s how he finished as he removed the last book from the empty shelves: “Neither I nor my instructors can take the time to teach remedial English and mathematics. The high schools send us graduates who are illiterate in language, grammar, algebra, geometry and thinking.”

About this time, the technological strides that had been made in support of the past “big” war were being felt in the commercial world. Steam locomotives had disappeared, framework and fabric airplanes were becoming a thing of the past, round engines with many cylinders disappeared and the personal computer was beginning. And these were all good changes. But we hadn’t provided a replacement technology that stimulated kids from 6 years to 10 years to aspire to design, to build, to operate. We let our schools degenerate into social experiments where the students were taught what to think rather than how to think. This also was about the time that the swelling of technology made it necessary to consider making engineering a 5-year curriculum. In some schools, the remedial freshman year added another year! That was a daunting prospect to a teenager.

And now, with the “energy crisis” evolving, we engineers are held in disrepute because we didn’t design and make then what our detractors want now.

During the past 25 years, I have lectured in several schools and organizations in this country where the official position was, “Engineers? I can hire and fire what I need just like typists and floor sweepers.” This mentality rates your comment about engineers not being overhead cost. Similar disapprobation did not happen in my lectures overseas. On reading about foreign work, I wonder about the attitudes and engineering showing up in places like Dubai with it’s indoor ski run and the new 2,300-ft.-tall building.

And then, there’s the problem of fighting the bureaucracies and protesters when projects are in the earliest stages. Several projects for which I was lead consultant died because the bureaucrats didn’t have an adequate committee report or because the protesters wanted to preserve some exotic plant or animal here, though it was abundant there.

Finally, you are right about money. Most good engineers I know enjoy money but, given the choice, really want to retire only in comfort rather than either penury or luxury feeling that “the world is, in however small a way, better because I did my part.”


Arc Flash Story Correction

“The physics behind arc flash is relatively complex and interactive. The combination of available fault current, arcing current and fault clearing time will directly affect the flash protection boundary and thermal and blast energy that is released during an arcing fault. Other boundary distances such as the limited approach, restricted approach and prohibited approach boundaries are shock protection boundaries and are fairly easy to determine from the system voltage. Since the energy released is fundamentally affected by current and time, it is critical to know the range of available fault current and arcing current accurately, as this magnitude of current will determine how quickly the overcurrent protective device will operate to clear the fault. Available fault current at each piece of equipment in the system is determined by the fault current available from the utility at the service point which is subsequently reduced by various impedances that occur within the facility system. Accurate available fault current is usually determined by a short circuit study which also relies on an accurate electrical one-line diagram.”