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By Jack Ganssle

Unionization

Published 9/14/2007

In my recent article about H1-B visas (http://embedded.com/columns/embeddedpulse/201203171), I scrupulously took no position on the current state of engineering employment (surplus? Shortage? Who knows?) but made the prediction that in the USA there's a negative bubble of incoming and graduating EE and CS students, which, I believe, will create a shortage in the future.

The emails piled in, some to the web site, some directly to me. 80-some correspondents gave opinions that ranged all over the map. A very few ad hominem attacks from people who substitute invective for reason I ignored. But most, regardless of position taken, were interesting and thoughtful.

In the article I cited data from the IEEE and other sources, which is what I based my prediction on. A lot of readers feel these numbers are being manipulated by the Institute for the benefit of business so my conclusions are wrong.

Many argued that if there was a shortage today salaries would rise. I disagree. The law of supply and demand works only in an ideal system. The facts are these: employers all have a fiduciary responsibility by law to their stockholders to maximize shareholder value. For better or for worse maximizing profit is part of this. So they will always feel compelled to hold salaries down. Offshoring and hiring H1-Bs are all aspects of this business imperative. Lobbying Congress for more such visas is another.

In many companies - not all - engineers are considered fungible commodities rather than essential strategic parts of a long-term plan. That has bred the crazy selection process where HR uses search algorithms instead of reason to match extremely narrow needs with resumes that have just the right mix of acronyms.

We're not like other professionals, like doctors and lawyers, who often have their own practices and their own unions, ah, "professional associations," which manage the supply of these people and lobby for their interests in Congress. The ABA and the AMA come to mind.

In my opinion engineers will always be treated as replaceable cogs unless we have similar, powerful organizations. Unions, to be precise.

My personal opinion on engineering unions remains unchanged from when, in protest, I resigned from the student chapter of the IEEE in the early 70s as that organization entered into one of its occasional socialist modes and pushed hard for the unionization of our profession. Though I think the unions saved labor from the robber barons a century ago, by the 70s many had become corrupt and simply focused on confrontation. But I do suspect we'll see a resurgence of organized labor as a reaction to globalization's wage suppression in the US and the migration of work offshore.

But will engineers join in those ranks? The email from the last article was so negative, in some cases almost despairing, that I felt I was hearing the cry of Samuel Gompers.

I'm an old guy with an established career, who, perhaps simply out of pride, or perhaps from a particular upbringing, could never join a union. But what about you? Unionization: is it a good idea or not?