JoAnn Hackos, PhD
The IEEE-USA represents electrical engineers, computer scientists, systems analysts, programmers, and other high-tech workers in its 225,000-member organization. Among the members are a small group that identifies itself with technical communication through the subgroup, The Professional Communication Society (PCS).
“IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the IEEE. It was created in 1973 to advance the public good and promote the careers and public-policy interests of the more than 225,000 technology professionals who are U.S. members of the IEEE. The IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional society.” For more information, go to www.ieeeusa.org.
In early May 2004, the IEEE-USA issued a press release that accounts for continued job loses among its US constituents. For the full text of the press release, go tohttp://www.ieeeusa.org/releases/2004/050404pr.html.
According to the statistics reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (part of the Commerce Department), the number of employed individuals in the US declined in several categories. Electrical engineers employed declined by 59,000 from the 1st quarter 2003 to the 1st quarter 2004. Jobless rates among computer scientists and systems analysts increased to 6.7 percent, the highest level ever. Among computer programmers, joblessness increased from 4.6 to an incredible 9.0 percent in the 1st quarter 2004.
The only good news, if we can call it that, was among computer hardware engineers. Unemployment rates declined from 9.0 percent in the 4th quarter 2003 to 4.9 percent in the 1st quarter 2004.
CIDM members are likely to be directly affected by this dismal employment picture. Despite the apparent increases in employment reported by the Commerce Department, high-tech unemployment in the US continues to be a major issue. Information developers are often hired or fired in proportion to the computer programmers, hardware engineers, and computer sciences with which they work. If employment continues to decline among our SMEs, it is likely to decline among our membership as well.
We know, of course, that many technical positions in US companies are being outsourced to cheap overseas labor. According to our recent research, approximately 25 percent of US information-development organizations have outsourced technical writing positions. Not all of this outsourcing is outside the US, however, the trend to finding low-cost technical writers is definitely increasing.
But the loss of jobs is not only a result of outsourcing. Given the slowness of the US economic recovery in the high-tech sector, despite government claims, our companies continue to be reluctant to invest in new development activities. Obviously, if they aren’t developing new products, they don’t need as many engineers, programmers, or technical writers.
One wonders about the ongoing ability of the US to innovate in new high-tech development. When the unemployment roles are so high in technical fields, including technical communication, new people are reluctant to invest in degree programs or other training. They look elsewhere for opportunities. We have heard, for example, about the closing of some technical communication degree programs because of lack of enrollment. The pipeline of well-educated, qualified individuals entering the field will face a significant interruption, I’m afraid.
On July 15 and 16, 2004, I am hosting a workshop in Denver on the challenges of outsourcing. In the workshop, we will look both at methods of keeping jobs in-house by improving efficiency and increasing productivity in our own operations and at methods for making outsourcing successful, whether the outsourcing occurs through a domestic supplier or through an offshore agency. We will also touch on the requirements of working with a multi-national, distributed group of information developers, even when they are all working for the same company. I hope that you will be able to join me at this workshop and share your experiences, in addition to learning from others.