Monday, November 16, 2009

Resurgence of interest in Mech and Elec Eng

Courtesy of the Ace of Spades I read this WSJ peice about the return of hands-on engineering (primarily mech and elec), chiefly at the expense of software and computer engineering. I'm initially trained in electrical engineering myself.

Avenger focussed on the general enthusiasm for engineering as such on the part of Americans, and I wont dispute that. What's unsurprising to me, and not mentioned on the WSJ page is why it is at the expense of software engineering in particular. Certainly, the bust is part of that as commenters on Ace pointed out, as well as noting that the physical cost is coming down, but I wonder how much is also attributable to the physical nature of what is produced.

For software the engineers involved can be located anywhere on the planet and their product emailed to the managers anywhere else on the planet also. By contrast, when the product is something physical this is not so easy. There is something in the hands-on examination of a physical product that perusal of images and drawings just doesn't capture and convey. That means it is much harder to outsource jobs to enthusiastic foreigners for hardware design than it is for software design. In fact, in regards to the "problem" of outsourcing someone once noted that the UK company Dyson has employed more people in the UK precisely because it has been able to locate final production factories in low-cost-labour countries, where the new UK jobs have been the physical engineers designing the product.

Other people have noted that a significant proportion of the new ME students are foreigners. They are worried about this, and to a certain extent they are right, but both the subtle racism involved and also that our-nation-uber-alles attitude are highly questionable. I'm glad to see foreigners picking up their standards, and the more they do so the more that capital can be put to profitable use. That means more prosperity in those parts of the world and products for everyone with ever improving value-for-money.

Now, by all means, complain about the grievously improper actions of domestic government that discourage domestic capital accumulation, but don't begrudge foreigners' improving their lot. The two issues - domestic investment and foreign investment - though connected by economics, are politically separate, and would still happen to some degree even if all countries were wonderfully laissez-faire. In fact, if they were all LFC countries then for a time the capital would flow to foreign countries at a far HIGHER pace than today, though the process would also establish an equilibrium and slow down to negligible levels much sooner than would happen in today's political-economic climate (bring it on!!). The fact that as the US and the EU gets worse the more capital will flee to places like India is not in any way grounds for complaints about "damn Indians" (or Chinese or whoever) stealing people's jobs or engineering opportunities. Any fault involved is layable strictly at the feet of US and EU politicians (and in turn, the state of their respective cultures on the matter). To the extent that foreigners are benefitting from it the proper attitude is in part to be thankful for a silver lining, because imagine what it implies if no such flight was occurring...

A final note is that the increase in concern for engineering in the US wont automatically translate into more industrial capital being invested in the US. Successful use of capital requires the efforts of entrepreneurs more than it does engineers. Schumpeter pointed that out several decades ago, and it is still as true today as it was then. Engineering is only the discovery of what can physically be done, but capitalism requires discovery of what is worth doing, and that is a value judgement increasingly difficult to make thanks to the departure from laissez-faire. No amount of resurgence in engineering is ever going to make up for the betrayal of capitalism by government.


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