Is Boeing telling kids, "Don't be an engineer"?

The Wall Street Journal yesterday carried an interesting op ed about Boeing's attempt to move a production line to South Carolina from Seattle. As the piece relates, a Boeing executive made the mistake of saying "his company would move a production line to South Carolina as payback for past strikes by machinists in Seattle." It turns out that doing such stuff is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act which is why the NLRB filed an unfair labor charge against Boeing.

More interesting, though, is the writer's observation about wages. Boeing is moving production from a high-skill workforce averaging $28/hour to a work force averaging $14/hour for a starting wage. He further opines that "foreign creditors have (the U.S.) in their clutches....not because of our labor costs -- in that respect, we can undersell most of our high-wage, unionized rivals like Germany....We depend on Boeing to out-compete Airbus, its European rival. But when major firms move South, it usually a harbinger of quality decline....Here is yet another American firm seeking to ruin its reputation for quality. Why? To save $14 an hour! Seriously: Is that going to help sell the Dreamliner? In terms of the finished product, the labor cost is minuscule....It's incredible that conservatives claim such small differences in labor cost would be life or death to Boeing. It's not labor cost but labor skill that is life or death to the survival of Boeing, never mind pilots and passengers."

Well, he's comparing a starting wage in South Carolina to the average wage in Seattle, which is a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation. And in this day and age, is work done in South Carolina really lower quality than that done in Seattle?

But the following passage is the one that really got my attention: "Most depressing of all, Boeing's move would send a market signal to those considering a career in engineering or high-skilled manufacturing. It is a message that corporate America has delivered over and over: Don't go to engineering school, don't bother with fancy apprenticeships, don't invest in skills. No rational person wants to take on college or even community college debt to come out and work on the Dreamliner -- which should be the country's finest product -- for a miserable $14 an hour. If a single story in the news can sum up the reasons for America's global decline, it's the decision to build a Dreamliner that will gut the American dream."

I don't think engineers in South Carolina make $14 an hour even as a starting salary, but never mind that. The sentiment is correct. And, it should be pointed out, we are talking about corporate management that moved the headquarters of Boeing from Seattle to Chicago, Ill., undoubted because of the "low wages" in the Chicago area. One might be tempted to say that if wages are such a concern for Boeing management, perhaps the company headquarters should follow production to South Carolina as well.

Here is the original article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304186404576388062830875084.html

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Lee Teschler

Leland serves as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of...
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