The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced yesterday at a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon, that it had secured a commitment from 45 companies to double the number of engineering internship opportunities they offer by 2012. The move is part of the council’s effort to train and graduate an additional 10,000 engineers from U.S. colleges and universities every year. Yesterday’s announced commitments will add close to 6,300 new internships.
Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel and a member of the council, said that there simply aren’t enough qualified engineers in the American workforce to meet the needs of the market. One reason so many companies are looking to relocate their R&D departments to China or India is that those nations are graduating about 10 times more engineers, making it all the more important that the United States bolster its own engineer-training programs, he said.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu added that it’s not enough for engineers in the United States to do the inventing and then leave the manufacturing to overseas labor. Production engineers capable of streamlining the steps between research and development are in high demand, he said, and the United States would do well to invest in creating more such jobs.
It’s understandable that such captains of industry (and of U.S. science policy) would be excited about increasing the size of the labor force. Having more engineers to choose from means companies can do less training and hire new employees who match up better to their (the company’s) needs, for less money. Cheap, high-skilled, ideally trained labor is every CEO’s ideal. But, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the future looks sunny for only a few engineering fields. Other fields have less reason for optimism. The handbook notes that cuts to defense spending have led to large-scale layoffs of engineers in aerospace and electronics. Under- and unemployment among engineers is a problem that increased internship opportunities will do little to solve.
Increased internship opportunities could help better prepare U.S. engineering students for real working conditions and make them more competitive for the available jobs, Chu said. True enough. These days, companies provide far less on-the-job training than they once did, insisting instead that new hires have the precise skills they need when hired. Internships provide opportunities for a few talented engineers to train themselves on the job and to make a good impression. But they do little — not nothing, but little — to alter the supply/demand balance in the employment market. A few new internships will do little to increase the number of jobs available for engineers who — like many who currently are under- or unemployed — have outstanding ability but perhaps not precisely the skills required by a particular company at a particular time.
There’s one more point that should be made: If there is, truly, an economic shortage, wages will increase. This will lead to an increase in the number of people entering the field. This is basic economics, and recent developments in the petroleum engineering profession show that it’s still true. U.S. technical labor policy seems to be committed to subverting the natural function of markets in order to keep wages low. Low wages mean there’s little incentive for smart people to enter the field — a never-ending negative-feedback loop. If we want the best and brightest to choose science and engineering (and other highly productive fields, in contrast to, say, designing new financial instruments or getting people to click on ad links in Facebook), we have to be willing to pay them.
Coming back to yesterday’s announcement, the companies who’ve committed to doubling their engineering internship opportunities include major players in the technology field, such as Boeing, DuPont, Facebook, General Electric, Intel, and Sprint Nextel.
For a full list of the companies, see the council’s press release.