High-Tech Crybabies Head for the Crib

Last Updated Jun 23, 2008 5:00 PM EDT

Professional organizations and most of the high-tech world has been moaning about a shortage of graduating engineers for years. Some German companies think they have an answer, according to the Financial Times: Start recruiting in kindergarten and nursery school:
"It is a new development in that we have seen we need to start very early with children. Starting at school is not good enough -- we need to help them to understand as early as possible how things work," said Maria Schumm-Tschauder, head of Siemens' Generation21 education programme.

Wolfgang Malchow, board member for human resources at Bosch, said: "We are working with kindergartens. This is our future and we need to seize it."

Now there's an innovative idea -- from crib to CAD. Siemens is actually sending out $775 boxes of science experiments and providing teacher training not only in Germany, but around the world, including China and Ireland.

What, the Chinese don't produce enough engineers? Whatever happened to the silver bullet of outsourcing manufacturing and design and lowering all those pesky employee costs? Ah, but that gets closer to the real problem, which is that engineers tend to be smart and observant; it's hard to make any headway in the field if you're not. These engineers, and even students considering the field, notice the pecking order in major corporations. Who gets the big money, rewards, and even the credit for successful products? Upper management. Who are the "propeller-heads" whose pesky economic burden seems slated to be offshored at the lowest wage possible? Researchers, scientists, programmers, and engineers.

When you're dealing with people, look at what they do, not what they say. Given the past and current behavior of those in charge of high-tech companies, why would they want more engineers? Here's the engineer's answer: So they can increase supply and lower compensation. For many companies, engineers are nothing more than intellectual factory workers, clever cogs that you keep in a back room. Forget about technical creativity and just get back to your seat and find a way to cut another 17 cents from the product costs -- the CEO wants his multi-million dollar bonus. That's hardly an inviting atmosphere.

To be fair, not all companies are like this, but all too many are. When they though it was safe, I've heard CEOs and marketing VPs dismissively joking about their engineers, or even their engineering customers. If the atmosphere were really different, you'd see companies anxious to make the engineers happy and well-paid and fulfilled -- just like they do for managers. If companies really want to recruit and even retain engineers, they might try something truly radical, like making the field economically, intellectually, and professionally attractive. You don't have to be a kindergartner to get it.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.