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   June 2014  

Engineers, Inventing Ourselves Out of Work?

By Donald Christiansen

At a recent meeting on the topic of K-12 STEM education, several retired engineers expressed reservations about the many programs aimed at producing more engineers in the United States. There will not be enough jobs for all of them, it was argued. The surplus will drive down salaries. More will be hired as temporary employees, without benefits enjoyed by permanent employees. Some will have to take jobs overseas.

I remembered hearing many of these same arguments in the 1970s, when the economy had been impacted by the oil crisis and the onset of “stagflation.” IEEE leadership was then worried that some of its members were hoping to change it from a purely technical organization to one concerned with limiting the pool of engineers available for employment (through mandatory licensing or other means).  The argument that engineers who develop new products eagerly awaited by consumers, along with ways to produce them without human assemblers or attendants, might also begin to “invent themselves out of jobs” had not yet been posited. Engineers had long been thought by many to be responsible, along with corporate managers, for worker displacement caused by automation of assembly tasks, but engineers themselves were deemed to be immune from job loss. Still, the recurrence of the arguments I had first encountered in the 1970s prompted me to do a bit of research.

Looking Back

An excellent treatise on the debate about technological unemployment in the United States from 1929 to 1981 was written in 2000 by Amy Sue Bix, a professor of history at Iowa State University. In her book she quoted economic writer Stuart Chase, who warned, just before the stock market plunged in 1929, that mechanization had put factory, railroad workers,  and miners out of jobs. Since 1920, he reported, technological unemployment had risen by 650,000. (To what extent the resultant slowdown in consumer spending and construction caused the market crash is still argued, but the thirty-fold increase in unemployment between 1929 and 1933 is factual.)

In the 1930s, the argument over the impact of technological unemployment gained impetus. Industry leaders dismissed the effects of worker displacement as incidental and temporary. The president of Westinghouse saw it as “superficial,” part of the “readjustment period of business.” Charles Kettering, General Motors’ vice president and director of research, evidently thought technological displacement a success, telling a meeting of the AAAS that “if we did not have unemployment today, it would indicate the hopelessness of management in engineering [because] for fifty years we have done nothing but attempt by machine design to displace labor.”

Physicist Robert Millikan, president of Caltech, noted that science “has produced wealth and leisure, even in the midst of this depression . . . Call unemployment leisure, and you can at once see the possibilities.” On the other hand, Cornell’s dean of engineering, Dexter Kimball, admitted that “permanent technological unemployment already exists,” and we [need to be] on our guard as industry becomes more scientific.” He raised the question of “how far we shall permit the good of the majority to be advanced at the cost of [minority] suffering.”

Michael Pupin, Columbia University physicist, somewhat poetically defended industrial mechanization because it had “made the physical side of human life ever more glorious than the life of the Olympian gods.” Even so, a report to a Congressional committee in 1940 suggested that continuous-strip mills produced as much steel with 130 workers as older plants had with four thousand or more.

During the depression years, the notion of imposing a holiday on technical projects occasionally surfaced, as reflected in a pair of articles in the Rotarian in 1934 entitled “Do We Need Birth Control for Ideas?” Not surprisingly, it got no traction.

To cope with the rising number of technologically unemployed, numerous suggestions were made to shorten the work week—in some cases to as few as three hours per day. While this would increase the number of employees, it did not appeal to employers since it would require a significant increase in hourly pay and multiply the cost of employee benefits.

Some companies received a modicum of credit for their programs designed to ease the transition from human to machine employment. The Bell System gained some recognition for its attempts to smooth the conversion from manual to dial switching by gradually reassigning and retraining operators for new positions when possible. Nevertheless, by the 1950s when AT&T had converted some 85 percent of its operations to dial, Michigan Bell had found it necessary to lay off over half of its workers in some of its exchanges.

The declining status of the middle class, a high profile issue today, did not happen suddenly. It was a topic of discussion in the 1980s, when it was largely blamed on unemployment caused by the loss of “smokestack” industries and the impact of robotics and computer applications. (In 1983, Time magazine selected the computer as its “Man of the Year.”)

Effects on Engineers

Until the 1970s, engineers, along with management, were seen as the perpetrators of technological unemployment, never the victims.

Most of us then accepted the proposition that the project we were working on, if successful, would not put us out of a job. Another challenging project would follow. Even if an entire technology were deflated in importance, as in the case of vacuum tubes with the arrival of semiconductors, we expected to move on, along with the new technology, and in many cases with the same employer. Mid-20th-century engineers might expect to remain with the same company until retirement, or, perhaps due to ambition or circumstances, move on to one or two others.

Today, we are told, engineers may find themselves, along with researchers, computer professionals, and other skilled technologists, required to find employment with as many as ten different companies during their careers—and not always in their preferred field of interest. Some, it is said, will find themselves fired and rehired as temporary employees to save on employee benefits. Others may be hired under contract for the duration of a particular project.

If these projections prove to be accurate, will it change the attraction of the engineering profession to U.S. students? And how might that affect the leadership role of the U.S. in technological innovation? In any event, I’m proposing that we ought not decrease our concern with teaching our K-12 students STEM-related subjects, whether or not they elect to pursue science or engineering careers.

Your comments are welcome.


Bix, A. S., Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Chase, S., Prosperity: Fact or Myth, C. Boni, 1929.

Temporary National Economic Committee Hearings: Technology and Concentration of Economic Power, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.

Kettering, C., “Do We Need Birth Control for Ideas? Inventors Don’t Invent Enough,” Rotarian, April, 1934.

Stamp, J., “Do We Need Birth Control for Ideas? A Technology of Accommodation,” Rotarian, April, 1934.

Pupin, M., “The Immortal Cosmic Harmony as a Scientist Conceives It,” The New York Times, Feb. 7, 1932.

Kimball, D., “The Social Effects of Mass Production,” Science 77, No. 1984, 1933.

Hirschfeld, C. F., “Whose Fault?,” American Scientist, No. 1, 1932.

Kettering, C., “The Present Day View-Point of Science,” Stabilization of Employment, AAAS Proceedings, Principia, 1933.

Biggs, L., The Rational Factory, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Hounshell, D. A., From the American System to Mass Production, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.


Comments may be emailed directly to the author at donchristiansen@ieee.org or submitted through our online form.


Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org.


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