Engineers in the Working Class

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Engineers in the Working Class

by Pete Barrer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 4, September 1971, p. 9 & 11 – 13

These days, we engineers are in a bad way. Some 80,000 (about 6% of all engineers) are underemployed or out of work, while the others, putting up with a dull job, are taking shorter work weeks, or daily dreading being laid off. The professional societies, out of one side of their mouths, ask the government for relief, while out of the other spouting glorious words to maintain professionalism. The government is seen as both the creator and solver of problems in the engineer job market: it was the government who cut off funds and it is the government who can hire again. The current situation, however, is indicative of an even more fundamental change in the nature of engineering. Engineering work has deteriorated in creativity and independence. Despite extraordinarily high salaries and degree requirements, engineers serve essentially the same function as other blue or white collar workers in the American capitalist society. Engineering is no longer a profession. We engineers have joined the working class.

The Condition of Engineering Work; Alienation

Like other workers, engineers are finding themselves submerged within a large bureaucracy: in 1967, 54% of all engineers employed in industry worked in companies with more than 1,000 employees. The 81 ,000 employed by the Federal Government were in the biggest bureaucracy of all. Such organizations force control to the top, and routinize work at the bottom, leaving the individual little control over his own work. For efficiency, tasks are fragmented and each engineer finds himself making uncreative designs to conform to specifications set out by somebody else. Once in Industry, engineers find that most of their talents and skills are left to stagnate. Of 800 electronics and aerospace engineers in the San Francisco Bay area who were laid off between 1963 and 1965, 59% felt their technical training was not utilized to the fullest extent in their pre-layoff job1. This fragmentation of tasks deprives the engineer of the satisfaction he had previously gained through this work; the opportunity to work on a design with an ultimate physical outcome and to trace personal efforts to the end. Fragmentation reduces each engineer’s contribution to an insignificant piece of the whole.

Large units of engineers in industrial bureaucracies actually work on no physical product at all. Engineers in the hot field of industrial engineering are employed only to rationalize the design and production process in complex organizations. A survey of professional engineers in 1964 found that 14% of professional engineers were engaged in methods and work simplification, which turned out to be the largest category in the survey. This complete separation from physical products, typical of other white collar workers, is an especially tough pill for engineers to swallow, given a long heritage of practicality.

Obsolescence is another danger facing engineers. Our skills are continually being bowled over by the expansion of technology; older engineers, if they don’t make it into management, are given dull assignments and bear the brunt of layoffs during economic slowdowns. While only 37% of the country’s R&D scientists and engineers are over 40, 48% of the unemployed scientists, engineers, and technicians presently registered with the Route 128 Division of Employment Security are over 402 and 46% of the 800 scientists and engineers layed of in the San Francisco Bay area during the period 1963-1965 were over 40.

The problem of obsolescence is not, however, the problem of rapidly expanding technology; engineers are as capable as anyone else in their ability to learn new tricks. Obsolescence results from the typical management practice of keeping engineers in narrow specialties, and buying new skills from recent—cheaper—college graduates, rather than providing retraining for older employees. A manager at RCA said, for example:

Electronics is changing so fast that some of the older engineers have fallen hopelessley behind. They could design a good unit using vacuum tubes but we have no use for it. Things are changing so fast that sometimes a good man hired out of school is more valuable than our experienced men.3

A study sponsored by the Engineer’s Joint Council lists “inadequate or non-existent plans for training and job rotation” as a major cause of job dissatisfaction. At RCA the most complex jobs are given to the engineers under 31, while older workers are railroaded into uncreative specialties, and given little incentive to expand their abilities or the scope of their work. 4

Perfect Labor Market

The job market for technical skills, which has all engineers at it’s mercy, can be characterized by what economists would call a perfect labor market. The commodities traded on the market are the technical skills held by engineers, who must sell themselves to the highest bidder if they are to survive. The skills required for any particular slot can be summarized in a phrase or two on a personnel form. Just as workers on a production line or secretaries in a typing pool, engineers with similar skills or training are remarkably interchangeable. Since companies invest little in training each engineer, they have little incentive to retain an employee during economic slowdowns. Engineers, like other workers, are layed off and rehired according to market fluctuations. Job insecurity has been a significant stimulus to the formation of technical unions in the war industries.

The engineering labor market also demands a high degree of geographic mobility. This requirement is greatest in the war sector, in which engineers are systematically moved from one plant or Air Force base to another, following the rotation of contract completion dates. Forced relocations are common in large industrial firms, which ship teams of engineers to oversee plant design and completion, especially for foreign investments. Relocations are also used as an advanced personnel technique to minimize frictions when. an engineer is promoted. These practices, treating the engineer as a commodity first and as a human being second, prevent him and his family from developing meaningful ties in a community; and lend a hand in “perfecting” the labor market for engineering skills.

In a strict Marxian sense, engineers have always been alienated; all the productive equipment has been owned and administered by capitalists. But prior to 1930, the engineers relationship to capitalist control was a special one: he was a professional, he designed the new equipment, had a great deal of influence over its use, and at work had frequent contact with the capitalist. Each engineer was given individual credit for his accomplishments, and enjoyed a craftsman’s pride in the completion of projects. With technology advancing at a slower pace than now, he could afford to finance his own retraining and typically enjoyed more interesting responsibilities as he grew older; experience was a valuable asset. The relationship between the engineer and the capitalist during the era of engineering professionalism was a necessary concomitant of rapid growth. But the spending on war technology and related industry since the beginning of World War II has changed all that. The professional engineer is no longer needed in the economic order and experience has become a shackle of obsolescence. The privileges of professionalism have been eaten away and all that remains is a hard-dying myth.

Career Earnings: An Historical View

The pattern of career earnings since 1890 dramatically shows how the professional status of engineers has been eliminated. In 1914, an engineer with 20 years of experience made 5.6 times as much as an engineer beginning his career. By 1953, the ratio of salaries for similar groups had dropped to 1.9, and in 1968 the ratio was down to 1.7. The corresponding number for high school graduates for 1960 was 2.0, roughly equivalent to the ratio for engineers in that year. In the realities of the labor market, the engineer is no longer treated as a professional. Although each engineer still percieves his salary to be rising over time, the structure of earnings now looks very much like that of the working class as a whole.

There is no intention here of ignoring the fact that engineers make a great deal more money than high school graduates. The point is that, in spite of the salary differences, the structure of earnings has become very similar, reflecting that both kinds of workers now face the same sort of unprofessional job market: one in which skills are easily definable, workers are interchangeable, and little extra is paid to a worker with a lot of experience.

Modern and Traditional Engineering Work

These salary changes and elements of alienation at work have been caused by the rapid growth of new engineering industries; industries related to war production and characterized by high job separation rates, low emphasis on on-the-job training and quick obsolescence. Although most engineering fields have shown trends in these directions, the markets related to the aerospace, consulting, electrical, instruments, ordance, fabricated metal products, and communications industries are the worst. Those fields have also been growing the fastest: in 1940 they represented only 23% of all engineers. By 1967 53% of all engineers were employed by such industries. On the other hand, the share of engineers employed in the traditional fields of chemical, petroleum, construction, machinery, utilities and transportation declined from 45% in 1940 to 27% in 1967.

In the modern fields, the engineers are chiefly paid for their school training. Technical information grows very fast and experienced engineers become obsolete rather quickly. Because the investment in college depreciates fast, their early salaries are high. Firms tend to place them in highly technical R&D interdisciplinary teams, to push out the frontiers of technology. A specialty is soon developed and the engineer is encouraged, through quick salary increases, to stay in his specialty. Work is creative and challenging until obsolescence sets in at age 30 or 35 when the engineer becomes aware that younger engineers are being assigned to the newest projects. The company no longer finds it profitable to offer impressive salary increases, so the engineer finds his salary leveling off at age 40 or 45 and his work becoming dully repetitive. After a few job changes and perhaps a few technical courses to try to catch up, the engineer finds his work situation hopeless, and hangs on for the final 15 years of his career, dreading the possibility he will be laid off at the whim of a government spending cut or priority shift.

The engineer in the traditional industry, on the other hand, enjoys a different sort of career development. His school training prepares him less for the specifics of work, so that the employer spends a great deal teaching him technical lore and standard operating procedures. The engineer is taught early to identify with management and the overall profitability of the company in the commercial goods market. He acquires skills that are useful only to his particular employer, so that he becomes interchangeable only among the other engineers within his company. Resignations are low, since other firms will not pay for skills they cannot use, and company layoffs are also low because the costs of training new engineers are high. There is less tendency for the engineer to become obsolete, since he learns on the job most of what he knows, and the technical substance of work changes only slowly. Because of his integration into the company, the engineer has more opportunity to become a manager, and enjoys salary raises throughout his career as he becomes increasingly valuable to his boss.

The statistics bear out these differences. In the largely government-supported modern engineering industries named earlier, the yearly separation rate of engineers (layoffs + resignations + retirements) is 10%; that is almost half again as large as the separation rate in the traditional industries, which had 7% rate in 1968.

The distinction between the two kinds of labor markets is not likely to remain clear cut, however. The construction industry is becoming increasingly reliant on new technologies and rationalized methods: the use of composite materials, and of prefabricated structures are just two examples. The engineering market for machinery designers is also becoming rationalized, as new technologies are employed in manufacturing. For example, lasers are being used in the textile industry to cut cloth. The elimination of professionalizm is now penetrating all markets for engineering skills.

Conditions Undermining Engineer Group Consciousness

The system has many “fire extinguishers” which undermine a radical engineer movement: the most powerful is the ability of the economy to deliver the goods in greater volumes. The economy continues to expand, boosted by maintenance of consumer demand through manipulative advertising. Although the age-earnings profile for engineers has been flattening, individual men have always received consistent wage increases to age 40. To the extent that engineer dissatisfaction with work is replaced by satisfaction with consumption, engineers will continue to identify the present economic structure with satisfaction of their needs. Engineers, like all other workers, can learn to put up with the job in order to take home a salary.

Engineers also identify with the existing order in a deeper way: their entire career structure and sense of personal worth apparently depend on maintenance of the existing organization of technology. To talk to an aerospace engineer about conversion of his firm from war technology to meeting human needs is absurd; no engineer in his right mind would organize to put himself out of work.

Engineers also continue to maintain some measure of control over their work; as outlined earlier it is in the nature of engineering work to be at the forefront of technological change, and to make plans to be carried out by others. The professional-consultant myth dies hard, especially in the face of corporate personnel policy to maintain it.

Separation of the entire white-collar labor force into classified segments, each requiring special training, affects the engineer as well: he is given a well-defined status at work, separated from the draftsmen, accountants and production workers, and is socialized to maintain his status. This sets up high barriers to realization of group consciousness.

Older engineers are most likely to join unions; of the 500 engineers in RCA’s Communications Systems Division, 80% of those over 32 belong to the collective bargaining unit while only 16% in the age group 22-26 and 56% in the group 27-31 belong. The alienating conditions of work somehow overcome the individualistic notions, prevalent in the professions! myth, encouraged in school and early on the job. However, even when engineers get it together, they still maintain distinctions by calling theirs a “professional” union, and not allying with other workers in the company.5

Through their one dimensional education, engineers are taught to look for technical solutions to all problems; political activity seems too uncertain and vague to promise solutions. Further, an engineer working for the government must maintain a security clearance to keep his job; that’s a very strong incentive to remain apolitical. During the present unemployment situation, engineers are repeatedly told to seek personal solutions: The government and professional organizations sponsor workshops to teach engineers how to sell themselves as commodities and counseling services to advise them to adapt to their alienating situation. This approach blunts the individual’s ability to realize the source of the problem and his group’s potential to achieve necessary changes.

Despite the current decline of interest in engineering careers because of the economic crisis, the system has a strong ally in young engineers. These men are at the forefront of technology, and are inheavy demand upon graduation. Although their class backgrounds are no different from other college graduates, their attitudes towards school are quite different: they learn a definable skill for which society will reward them upon graduation. Engineers have been notably inactive in student movements. There are issues around which to organize young engineers, but such organizing must fight the tough reality that the immediate economic and work prospects for young engineers are generally very good.

Revolutionary Potential

Although there remains a whole catalogue of conditions hindering engineers from organizing themselves into radical groups, it is objectively true that engineering work in the capitalistic system is developing powerful contradictions.

One contradiction is in the growing amount of interdisciplinary work. The expansion of technical knowledge to applications in industry has forced the schools to specialize their students. As a result, engineering design becomes a group effort, in which engineers at the lowest levels must cooperate to make design decisions. In group decision-making lies the potential for realization of group power and the assertion of control over work through the overthrow of administrative management.

Another contradiction lies in the wasteful products of engineering work, and the desires to design socially useful products. All of the defense research and development is wasteful, and a great deal of the R&D for commercial markets is wasteful as well, being devoted to designing irrational model changes and gadgets for the sales effort. Yet engineering skills are greatly needed in such areas as housing, mass transportation, waste utilization and resource allocation. However, under the present system, these needs have the lowest priority.

Finally, we engineers are joining other people in recognizing that our problems are not purely personal, and are coming together to make demands for political solutions. Demands by engineers on the political order to reverse its technological directions and support science for the people will rise from the contradictions.


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  1. Loomba, R.P., A Study of the Reemployment and Unemployment Experiences of Scientists and Engineers Laid Off in the San Francisco Bay Area During 1963-1965, San Jose College Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.
  2. Results from a personal project.
  3. Thomson, Paul H., Performance Appraisal, Some Unanticipated Consequences, Harvard Business School thesis, 1969, p. 21.
  4. Ibid., p. 46.
  5. Walton, Richard E., The Impact of the Professional Engineering Union, Harvard Business School, 1961.