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August 1996, Vol. 119, No. 8
William C. Goodman
The computer services industry, which includes the makers of computer software, and the engineering industry, which designs a vast range of physical products, are similar in that both partake of the important role of originating and changing technology. Therefore, jobs in the two industries depend, to a great extent, on technological progress. Ironically, technology also may reduce the number of careers in these industries, as advanced computer tools decrease the amount of labor required to design a product, be it largely intellectual (as in the case of a software application) or physical (as in the case of a new weapon, a household appliance, or an office product). A variety of advanced computer tools are already widely used in the two industries and in some cases drastically reduce the requirements for labor. Jobs in the two industries, then, depend on technological progress for their existence, yet are vulnerable to technologically enhanced efficiency.1
At least one additional consequence of technological progress is highly relevant to job growth or loss in the two industries: advances in communications technologies, including links between computers, now make it much more practical to have programming or engineering performed overseas; as a result, both foreign competition for the business of U.S. clients and sales of U.S. services abroad have increased.
Certain social and political changes also have a considerable impact on the number of jobs in the two industries. For example, during the cold war, the development of advanced weapons contributed strongly to increasing demand for engineering and computer services.2 With the end of the war, advanced weaponry became less of an influence on demand. Recently, corporate downsizing has been a major influence on the number of jobs in the two industries,3 but not in the way one might think initially, as a later section will explain.
Since 1972, the combined number of jobs in the engineering and computer services industries has increased by more than 300 percent, to about 1.9 million. Jobs in engineering and architectural services (primarily engineering) increased by about 140 percent, to a level of 800,000. Jobs in computer services increased to about 10 times their number in 1972, reaching 1.0 million in 1995. But trends during the period of more than two decades have not been steady, with a severe slowdown in growth occurring in recent years.
This article describes the nature of the two industries in some detail, explains the major developments that affect employment in the industries, and examines the impact of those developments on the number of jobs in engineering and computer service firms.
This excerpt is from an article published in the August 1996 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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1 R. A. Ellis, At the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for American Engineers in the 1990's, special edition of the Engineering Workforce Bulletin (Washington, DC, American Association of Engineers Societies, Inc.), January 1994.
3 Ibid., p. 3.
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