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Global Playing Field

Dear Dave
We’ve been hearing more and more stories of consulting firms working with overseas partners as a strategy to either lower their cost of production on a particular project, or as a method to expand their ongoing capacity to do more work without having to incur the cost of hiring, equipping and maintaining traditional, mid- to lower-level employees. Is this trend fact or fiction? Where is this going?

Dear JG
The very same forces responsible for the massive global redistribution of jobs and capital investment that began in manufacturing more than a decade ago are now present and accelerating rapidly within the service portion of our economy. All professions, including engineering, are now beginning to feel the turbulence of this displacement hit home to them.

It’s more than a cliché that we live in a small world. As geographic and political boundaries fall and the levels of education along with enabling communication technologies improve around the globe, jobs and capital, like water free of constraint, will flow to the lowest point.

So what does one do? Do we run to our politicians and regulators and demand relief? Or do we accept the inevitable reality of it all and figure out how to cope and compete? Any protection we might be able to achieve would be short-lived at best. Even if we could cocoon ourselves from these evolving global facts of life, we would increasingly become irrelevant as the rest of the world learned to work around us and we would eventually end up as an isolated island outside the mainstream of economic importance. A pyrrhic victory—the patient dies from the supposed cure.

Instead, we do what America has always done best. Be it any one engineering firm serving its clients or the economy as a whole, we must continue to outpace the world in innovation and creativity. America’s historical success is based on it; our future depends on it.

As the rest of the world develops and catches up to our heretofore uncontested position of global leadership, we can no longer expect to hold onto jobs, professional or otherwise, when the requirements for those positions can be met in any number of other countries at lower cost. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Our only chance to remain ahead is through continuing to provide unique services and products not available anywhere else.

The unique value of your work as an engineer is in the consulting aspects of what you do, not the commodity-like production of working drawings. Only front-end creativity in programming a client’s needs, problem solving and delivering efficient and effective solutions will keep your clients coming back. What is your firm doing to enhance the imagination of the projects you design? Are you investigating new technologies, methods, materials and processes to better serve the needs of clients, or cookie cutting the tried and true from one job to the next?

The key to leadership in creativity and innovation is education. Ours is a country at a crossroads. Government, business and families need to forge a new partnership to rebuild our tired, waning system. America cannot hope to retain our position as the prominent force in the world when our children – our hope for future innovation and creativity—rank in the middle or lower end of the world pack when it comes to education—particularly, math and science. We should likewise re-think values that shower celebrities, ballplayers and CEO’s with wealth beyond imagination while simultaneously allowing far too many children, in the richest economy the world has ever known, to sleep in the arms of poverty and be crippled by illiteracy.

The history of the world is a tapestry of civilizations that first rise to prominence only to collapse under the burden of their success and spiral into obscurity as they turned away from the source of their greatness. We should not expect that we are somehow immune, but embrace this emerging challenge as a clarion call to rediscover what we may have gradually lost sight of along the way.

Wahby and Associates