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 UP CLOSE

BY THOMAS K. GROSE

CASSANDRA OF OUTSOURCING

A professor’s warnings draw attention, if not public support, from engineers.


UP CLOSE: RON HIRAIn May 2003, Ron Hira addressed a group of Carnegie Mellon University engineers and issued this warning: Globalization and the growing amount of research and development work being shipped overseas by American companies were putting engineering jobs at risk, scaring students from the profession, and endangering the country’s technological lead and economic well-being. “I was laughed out of the room,” recalls Hira, an engineer and assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology who specializes in the science and engineering workforce. “I was told these were not issues engineers needed to worry about.”

Plenty of engineers are paying attention now. A 2005 article in The Bridge, a National Academy of Engineering publication, suggests that 90 percent of American engineers could face competition for their jobs from low-cost foreign rivals. That’s a threat that’s hard to ignore. Moreover, Hira fears the current economic slowdown will hit U.S. engineers disproportionately hard: “Companies will lay off in Boston before they do in Bangalore.” Meanwhile, industry will continue to increase its overseas engineering capacity “because the business case is just too compelling.”

Since the 2005 publication of Outsourcing America, the book he cowrote with his brother Anil, an economist at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Hira has become a leading authority on the subject. He’s testified before U.S. House panels and helped organize a series of hearings on the offshoring of R&D and innovation for the House Science and Technology Committee.

He’s joined by a growing number of critics with engineering, science, or business backgrounds, including Ralph E. Gomory, the retired president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the former head of research at IBM; James Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan; and Samuel C. Florman, the chairman of the civil engineering firm Kreisler Borg Florman Construction Co. and a noted author of engineering books. Generally, they argue that free-trade rationales for globalization are outdated and that America is offshoring its core competencies when it sends engineering jobs overseas.

Hira, 40, who is of Indian descent, stresses that he’s not against free trade. Proponents, he says, like to argue that “you are either for the current globalization regime or you are for protectionism and isolationism . . . this is a false choice. The reality is much more nuanced and complex . . . I am not antiglobalization. I’m anti the way it’s being done.”

After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon and George Mason universities, respectively, Hira worked as an engineer in industry and academia before earning a Ph.D. in public policy at George Mason in 2002. He began to focus on outsourcing and offshoring while working as a volunteer at IEEE and hearing “horror stories” from members about jobs lost overseas.

Hira fears that too much American productivity and know-how is being transplanted to developing countries, and it may be impossible for the United States to stay ahead of the technology curve.

Initially, it was mainly electrical and computer engineers who were at risk because high-tech companies were pioneers in offshoring. But Hira says almost every engineering discipline is threatened, including automotive, chemical, civil, and industrial.

“Companies will lay off in Boston before they do in Bangalore.”
—Ron Hira, Rochester Institute of Technology

The solution? “There are no silver bullets,” Hira admits. Certainly, he says, there should be government incentives — perhaps changes in tax policy — that encourage companies to keep engineering work in the United States Hira also would like to see the various engineering societies ramp up their lobbying efforts to promote job-saving policy changes. Indeed, Hira is himself in the middle of publishing a series of research articles on the policy implications of shipping innovation and R&D overseas.

Hira thinks his message is getting through to engineering academics. Tenured full professors at top schools will sidle up to him and say, “We really appreciate what you’re saying.” But so far, not one has backed him publicly. Perhaps that’s an indication that criticism of globalization still remains on the sidelines of mainstream thinking. Nonetheless, these days, no one laughs at Hira's warning.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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