January 16, 2008

THIS ISN’T NEWS, but it bears repeating:

The United States remains the world leader in scientific and technological innovation, but its dominance is threatened by economic development elsewhere, particularly in Asia, the National Science Board said Tuesday in its biennial report on science and engineering.

The United States’ position is especially delicate, the agency said, given its reliance on foreign-born workers to fill technical jobs.

The big problem is that the American workplace doesn’t make technical jobs attractive enough. The pay is okay, but less than that of other professionals, like lawyers. And the working conditions for engineers and scientists are generally quite poor — too much Dilbert, not enough Skunk Works. They act as if there’s a positive conspiracy to take all the fun out of it, according several of my friends who work in the area.

UPDATE: Reader Ken Braithwaite emails:

It got much worse after Sarbanes-Oxley. Suddenly we revamped all our processes to include “separation of duties” and other constraints ostensibly to prevent the merest possibility of fraud. But not really of course: really to provide ass-coverage at every level. But this applies as well in all sorts of situations where fraud is not an issue, like developers testing their code. The effect where I work has been disastrous.

People respond to incentives, and incentives were distorted at every level by SOX requirements.

It’s a metaphor for the society at large, I fear. And another engineer reader who prefers anonymity writes:

I would just like to say that yes, the pay could be better, and the old, dusty cubicles could be nicer offices, and I do feel like I live in a Dilbert strip. But the worst thing in my opinion is the management at my company, where the rewards and recognition for a job well done are few and far between. I’ve worked for over twelve years now as an aerospace engineer, and in that time I’ve had a fair amount of success on various projects, but have never gotten above a three on my performance evals.

I still think I would be bored doing anything else, but sometimes I just want to say screw it all and go use my abilities somewhere that I could make a lot more money. And I’m not alone.

One of my friends noted that engineers tend to do their best work — and their happiest — in a “skunk works” kind of setting where there’s a close connection between what they do and the actual making of stuff, with feedback both ways. He also noted that every company he’d ever worked for seemed to do its best to make sure that these kinds of settings didn’t exist . . . .

MORE: Bill Quick: “The tendency to denigrate the positions of those who actually make things work is endemic in the American business culture, which even after decades of supposed ‘streamlining’ is top-heavy with a relatively useless management culture.” I think it’s a problem that goes beyond just the business culture, but yeah.

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