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December 08, 2011



The Economist says things like this all the time. This could come straight from a Lexington article.

Nathan Smith

Possibly, but I think their standards are usually a bit higher than this.

Nathan Smith

The Economist tends to be supercilious, but not quite as supercilious as Zakaria is here.


"Second, it's up to the market to decide how much reward to provide to engineers, and thus, how much incentive to create for people to become engineers. My cousin got an engineering degree and it took him a year to get a job. He's doing all right now, but his experience does not suggest that demand is white-hot. It's just not smart to second-guess the market in such matters. If not that many people are going into engineering, the likely explanations are either that there's not really that much need for engineers after all, or that not many people have the aptitude and/or desire to do the job, even if the rewards are fairly good. Either way, the market outcome is optimal."

Here's an alternate story: Science and engineering are in very high demand, but it requires good schooling from a fairly young age to yield the best abilities in those who are less predisposed toward those fields. I'm frankly surprised that an engineer could go a year without getting a job, because we always struggle to find engineers and frequently hire kids right out of college. Other companies do this even more than we do. The scientific firms in our area are the same; struggling to find people.

Granted, if you're not willing to move to a few areas in the country in which these sorts of jobs cluster, it could be harder, but there's a huge mismatch right now.

If there was some easier ways for companies to pay for young people to get degrees in return for coming to work for them that might help, and some companies try to do that, but generally speaking I don't think there's an efficient market there.

Nathan Smith

Interesting, but one question: If engineers are so hard to find, why don't you just pay more? I think everyone knows that engineering is a somewhat well-paid career in which one has better chance of employment than, say, anthropology. They just don't like it very much. But if they knew they could walk out of college into six-figure jobs, I think a lot more people would do it. You might even lure some people who do have the aptitude but chose some other major to go back to school for a career switch. If it wouldn't be worth it to pay that much more, well, maybe the marginal product of an engineer is not enough to offset the disutility of being an engineer for more people.

Anyway, this doesn't get Zakaria off the hook. Wanting to promote more science and engineering in schools is not at all inconsistent with overregulation and deficits being a drag on the economy. That was gratuitous. There might even be a link between a shortage of engineers (if there is one, in the appropriate sense) and overregulation and deficits. Suppose firms did start offering recent college grads in engineering $200K / year. They'll be nearly in the top 1%, and "more taxes on the rich" might convince them to take the fun route and be an English major. Also, how much of engineers' time is spent thinking about how to satisfy environmental requirements?

Finally, it's interesting that "we always struggle to find engineers and frequently hire kids right out of college" is given as evidence of a "huge mismatch right now." Shouldn't that be normal? Isn't that what college is for?


I think the problem is that the response time to raised prices is very slow relative to the individual firm's hiring cycle. That is, we can hire engineers away from other firms, but we can't so easily convince people to become engineers. In any case, the salaries paid to engineers is already pretty high. If anything, the reason prices aren't higher is because companies can't easily tell how good an engineer will be ahead of time, and lots of engineers aren't very good*. Once a good engineer is identified, they can assume they will make six figures before very long. Apple's star engineers make high six figures, for example.

I only have so much visibility on how other engineers experience regulations, but I would say the #1 government-related thing engineers find irritating is worrying about IP. Technicians at the like can typically take care of regulatory hassles. Perhaps it's different for mechanical engineers in heavy industry, though the only one I know well works for a copper mine in Utah and has never mentioned anything except safety regulations.

"...it's interesting that "we always struggle to find engineers and frequently hire kids right out of college" is given as evidence of a "huge mismatch right now." Shouldn't that be normal? Isn't that what college is for?"

Amongst engineers with relevant experience, it typically takes 4-6 months before they know enough to be productive. Amongst college grads, it will take 4-6 months before we have an idea if they're ever going to be productive. It's a huge risk that usually isn't worth the salary savings. Basically every role is critical, and one failure can set back the whole project. Lots of other firms in the Valley have more pure/greenfield development work that requires fewer special skills and can tolerate more uneven quality, but we can't. So the fact that we hire out of school is really an expression of the reality that we just have to take risks in order to have a shot at filling all the slots. Some projects get created largely to absorb and occupy junior engineers so we can use them later, and if the product doesn't go anywhere it's not a huge loss.

*Social awkwardness, poor language skills, prima-donna attitudes, and unwillingness to work within project priorities being problems that are far more common than lack of aptitude.

Nathan Smith

By the way, what kind of engineers are we talking about here? Software engineers?


Electrical engineers, software engineers, and applied scientists.

Nathan Smith

Fascinating. In spite of liking my job quite a bit, I'm often tempted to drop it all and try to be a software engineer instead. I find that fascinating. Also, I wonder if I could steer some of those mostly-for-training-purposes projects my way. I could maybe find projects at my university for young software engineers to hone their skills on.


I think the single biggest motivator in engineering is how much creative control one gets. Money tends to be somewhat secondary, though they go together.

Historical trends in complexity, however, has been slowly eroding how much creative control any one engineer can have. I do wonder if that has dissuaded some who would have become engineers.

Nathan Smith

Fascinating. That makes me wonder whether engineering firms should imitate universities. Academia tends to offer great scope for creativity. It does so by coupling teaching, which isn't all that creative since one mostly has to teach the same old things, with research and scholarship, which doesn't contribute to the university's revenues except maybe indirectly through affecting the school's reputation, but does make the job a lot more attractive. What if engineering firms established a norm of six hours per day working, three hours personal/intellectual development? Would that attract good people?


Google does something very similar to that called "innovation time off", and it has worked very well for them. Google doesn't pay all that much more than other firms - sometimes less - but it does get a lot of the best engineers that way. The difficulty is in maintaining the high management discipline necessary to keep deadlines and so on from squeezing that sort of thing out. There's always a temptation to get the project done faster even though in the long term it increases the chances that someone will be able to lure away your engineers. Apple sells its engineers on the idea that they are going to make the best whatever in the world, and that keeps them working long hours.

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The principle here is that blaming your partner is the same as self-blame.

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