Software employment grows 45 percent in 10 years as angst in engineering grows

One unemployed electrical engineer, whose wife challenged President Obama on H-1Bs, is back at work

You may remember Darin Wedel. Early last year, his wife, Jennifer, asked President Barack Obama during a town hall-style conference call, about H-1B visas. Her husband had been laid off from Texas Instruments, she told him, despite strong credentials that included a patent he held.

Why does the government continue "to issue and extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?" Mrs. Wedel asked the president.

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Obama never directly answered the question. But he backs immigration reform legislation approved in the Senate that will substantially raise the base 65,000 cap on H-1B visas to as high as 180,000.

What that H-1B change would mean for electrical engineers, if the House agrees to the legislation, remains to be seen. Wedel, who trained as an electrical engineer and worked in the semiconductor industry, has been in the bull's-eye of some of the most turbulent changes in his field.

Software development employment has increased over the past 10 years, but not all IT areas are doing as well. And electrical engineering declined over this same period.

Some of that decline is a consequence of a fall-off in manufacturing, argue some. Offshore outsourcing gets blamed, as more engineering is done overseas.

Engineering is connected to manufacturing, and "manufacturing is shrinking as a fraction of our economy, as work moves offshore," said Stan Sorscher, labor representative at the SPEEA (Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace), a union representing more than 24,000 scientists, engineers, technical and professional employees in the aerospace industry.

"Engineering work follows manufacturing," said Sorscher, who has a Ph.D. in physics. "As low-tech suppliers take on more complex work, they will necessarily develop their own capacity for manufacturing R&D. As part of the offshoring business model, U.S.-based manufacturers transfer manufacturing technology to foreign suppliers and often integrate the offshore manufacturing into the overall design process," he said.

Wedel has found new work. He has been employed for about a year as a quality engineer for a large eye care/pharma company.

Ask about outsourcing, Wedel said it has "affected just about anyone with a technical degree -- it's purely business getting its way with government. Lobbyists have bamboozled our politicians into thinking we have a shortage of qualified engineers and that we need to import more via the H-1B -- simply not true.

"For electrical engineers, unless you are in the actual design of circuits, then you're not in demand," said Wedel, arguing that much of the job loss in the field is due to the closing of fabrication facilities.

Electrical engineers "are the life blood of our industry, whether they are designing, manufacturing or selling our products," Darla Whitaker, senior vice president, worldwide Human Resources, for Texas Instruments, testified during a 2011 Congressional hearing. Whitaker urged Congress to do more to improve immigration.

Wedel's former industry, semiconductors, hasn't recovered at all as an employer. In 2001, there were more than 200,000 people working in the semi-conductor industry. That number was less than 100,000 by 2010, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study on guest workers by Hal Salzman, a public policy professor at Rutgers; Daniel Kuehn, an economics doctoral candidate at American University; and Lindsay Lowell, director of Policy Studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University.

Their study argues that that the "United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations."

Overall employment among electrical engineers dropped from 385,000 in 2001 to 335,000 in 2012, according to an IEEE-USA analysis of U.S. labor data. In contrast, software developer jobs soared to 1.1 million from 745,000 in the same time period.

During the entire decade of the 1980s, unemployment for electrical engineers never rose above 2 percent -- even though the overall unemployment rate was at times as high as 10 percent, said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and researcher of tech immigration issues.

"The performance over the recent decades calls into question whether it's worth investing in such a career," said Hira. "Workers should expect to be laid off, and for substantial periods of time," he said. "The professions are much more risky than they were in the past, yet the rewards haven't shown up in wage increases to balance out that increased risk."

Hira sees decreasing demand for workers as a key problem.

Over the last decade, IT employment has shot up and down, and the only tech occupation that appears to have recovered to full employment is software developer, said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

Other tech occupations "have not even rebounded to what they were right before the Great Recession started," he said.

While it's great to see software developers getting back to full employment, said Costa, data appears to show that "the tech labor market is still too loose to suggest it is lacking in tech workers," he said.

Concerning the growth in software developers, researchers generally agree that it reflects an economy that has become much more software focused. The debate now may be about whether such a shift is really a bad thing if other areas -- engineering in particular -- stagnates or falls.

Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Brookings Institution, sees the rise of software and professional services in concert with a more software-focused economy. The decline in manufacturing represents the overseas and near-shore shift in manufacturing. "It does not have to do with decline of R&D/innovation in the U.S.," he said.

Zoltan Acs, a professor and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at George Mason University, argues that software development is innovation. Citing the app development work, "are these not innovations? I would be more upset if both trends (software development and electrical engineering) were down."

But Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, sees the decline in electrical engineering as "a clear reflection of the U.S. losing the race for global innovation advantage in manufacturing."

In a foundation report, " Worse than the Great Depression," the United States "showed its first decline since the data were collected in 1948. And certainly some of this was related to output that had an electrical engineering component," said Atkinson.

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Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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