Steve Jobs: Train factory engineers

Manufacturing could move back to the U.S., if community colleges, tech and trade schools trained enough factory engineers, Steve Jobs told President Obama. According to Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson:

Apple had 700,000 factory workers employed in China, he said, and that was because it needed 30,000 engineers on-site to support those workers. ‘You can’t find that many in America to hire,’ he said. These factory engineers did not have to be PhDs or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Community groups are teaching basic skills as a bridge to job training at community colleges.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    Steve Jobs may have said this, but that doesn’t make it true.

    Warren Buffett was willing to keep the original Berkshire Hathaway textiles operation running in the U.S. if if was able to break even. It could not, and in 1985 he shut it down. He made it quite clear in one of his annual letters that the problem was *NOT* the union, which he claimed was very cooperative in trying to make things work out. There was just no way to pay a reasonable (probably close to U.S. minimum) wage and still be competitive against cheaper foreign producers.

    I don’t see how assembling iPods and iPhones would be much different. This work *could* be done in the U.S., but it would not be price competitive with China. One difference is that Apple has high enough margins that Apple could go with a higher cost assembler and still make a profit, but would Apple do this? If Apple would, how many other firms *CAN*? I doubt that Dell has high enough profit margins to do this even if Dell wanted to.

    • There was a pretty good article in Forbes a while back, “Why Amazon Can’t Make A Kindle In the USA“, that shares some interesting information about Dell’s outsourcing practices and their consequences.

      I don’t think that Jobs had any illusions about bringing low-level assembly jobs back to the U.S., but Apple (unlike Dell) has done a pretty good job of maintaining “design capability in the States”, and I suspect that Jobs would have liked to manufacture its A6 chip in the U.S. but felt stymied by government regulations (not so much that they exist, but that if you want to open a plant in China everybody gets out of your way rather than checking your paperwork) and the consequence of outsourcing described in the Forbes article:

      “So the decline of manufacturing in a region sets off a chain reaction. Once manufacturing is outsourced, process-engineering expertise can’t be maintained, since it depends on daily interactions with manufacturing. Without process-engineering capabilities, companies find it increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research on next-generation process technologies. Without the ability to develop such new processes, they find they can no longer develop new products. In the long term, then, an economy that lacks an infrastructure for advanced process engineering and manufacturing will lose its ability to innovate.”

      You won’t produce 30,000 people trained and ready to supervise plant workers in a high tech setting unless they see potential to find jobs. If those jobs won’t come back unless and until the 30,000 supervisors are trained and ready, the problem is insoluble.

  2. Jobs was correct. The US (see here) graduates a grand total of about 70,000 students with degrees in engineering each year (and about half that many in computer and information science). If Jobs needed 30,000 just to support Apple factories in China, that would a sizable fraction of a whole year’s output. Take out the thousands who were foreign and went home after they got their degree and it’s really depressing.

    Interestingly, the US graduated 89,140 students with degrees in the visual and performing arts in 2009, so we’ve got that base covered.

  3. Soapbox0916 says:

    The same Business Week article that Rob mentions also implies the point that the US actually has more engineers, but that other countries seem to use looser terminology for what is labeled as engineers. Actually I have seen some other related articles that indicate that other countries use a much looser term for engineers, so maybe we need to count more broadly too. Putting it all together, while we could use some more good engineering graduates, we also have a labeling problem and a specialization problem, defining away resources by being too narrow.

    So some of the students that get their engineering degrees now, but that are suffering in this economy and unable to launch a career, it is because there are not enough of them for companies to consider worth their while, so they are currently getting screwed over? Speaking for my local region that lost a huge amount of engineering jobs, so that at least locally many former engineers are now working outside of STEM altogether, there just wasn’t enough of them numberwise locally to make it worthwhile for companies to bring in STEM jobs? I have had several discussions with current engineers nationwide that are scarred to recommend STEM right now, particularly engineering to young people, because they tell me they are watching their jobs get outsourced to other countries. So these engineering jobs are getting outsourced because there are just not enough engineers in the US to make it worthwhile to companies? So how is all of this encouraging young people to get an engineering job or a STEM degree right now?

    If I broaden out the conversation from engineers to STEM, STEM jobs are highly specialized, and often are not seen as flexible as other degrees such as business management. In addition, I believe that many HR departments are screening out really good STEM applications relying on search words instead of understanding when an applicant has equivalent or near equivalent skills. I think the search word approach used by HR departments especially hurts STEM applicants because STEM is more technical and specialized.

    Flexibility matters a lot to students too, particularly to practical students. Business management seems safer for example in terms of flexibility. Business management is also oftentimes seen as easy, and easy is not always about being lazy, easier is oftentimes seen as safer too. STEM degrees, besides being considered hard, seem more risky, and then are not seen as flexible either.

    In terms of labeling, one of my former jobs had the title of environmental manager. If I would have been a certified professional engineer, I would have had the title of environmental engineer. Otherwise there was no real difference. Environmental managers did exactly the same jobs as environmental engineers.

    I get the impression that someone that would get something like a visual arts degree may not be as practical to begin with as someone that would consider engineering, but I really worry that many practical people that could handle the work that goes into getting a STEM degree, are getting scarred away from STEM degrees currently. Plus, we really need to help current STEM graduates get STEM jobs if we want even more students to get STEM degrees. I think that the disconnect between STEM graduates and STEM job shortages is a very real problem that needs to be better addressed, it not as simple as the number of STEM graduates. We lose STEM graduates to non-STEM jobs.

    If companies really are serious about hiring more engineers in the US, they need to let students know that it is worth their while to get an engineering degree, and for students to believe that it is worth their while to get an engineering degree too.

    • You make a good point about HR departments.  A major problem is that HR is the “safe” place to slot Affirmative Action and diversity hires, and the resulting lack of subject-area expertise leads to the sort of disconnect you mention.  I’ve heard that technical managers cannot even get access to the full list of resumes from applicants because HR is required to select them on criteria decided by Legal in order to avoid discrimination suits.

      The Chinese are not foolish enough to burden themselves with a massive “anti-discrimination” witch hunt using faulty measures such as “disparate impact”.  That’s one of many reasons they’re kicking our butt.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “I’ve heard that technical managers cannot even get access to the full list of resumes from applicants because HR is required to select them on criteria decided by Legal in order to avoid discrimination suits.”

        You can put me down as anecdotal data in the other direction. The HR department at the large, technical company I work for is fine forwarding *ALL* the resumes to the hiring managers. I’ve been handed binders full of resumes by my manager to go through because he didn’t want HR accidentally screening out the candidates we wanted.

        I’d need to know a specific company name (and probably more than one …) before I believed this.

  4. LOL. Gerstner laid off many mfg engineers, then suggested they become teachers. Bottom line is that mfg eng. is a 24/7 job with low wages and bennies compared to other jobs that math and problem solving competent grads can obtain should they not start their own businesses. Shucks, in many cases an operator makes more money than a mfg eng.