Monday, January 23, 2012

No Foxconn City in the US? Not because we don't have enough "engineers"

(Via @NCharles -- thanks!) In the New York Times, a fascinating look at why the US doesn't have a facility making the iPhone:
Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight. 
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. 
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
But the authors, Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, begin to make mistakes when they start talking about the difficulties of hiring engineers in the US:
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. 
In China, it took 15 days. 
Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. (emphasis CJ's) Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.
I find this a very frustrating conversation to attempt to have with the mainstream press, who apparently don't have enough experience in technical fields or with technical people to understand what's going on here.

What is an engineer? To me, an engineer is someone who's graduated with a degree in engineering from an accredited university and then, if required, takes the needed licensing examinations to gain a professional engineer's license. But, of course, being the son of an engineer, I'd say that.

What companies want (and what they can find in China in spades, I gather) are experienced engineering technicians and/or supervisors. Someone who used to work on the line, and worked their way through their organization and are willing to relocate and/or work for a new employer. Basically, they're looking for people that in the US military would be called non-commissioned officers or senior enlisted types (corporals, sergeants, etc.) We don't have enough people at that level of experience in the US who can relocate at a moment's notice (or be willing to live in dorms, or work 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, or whatever relatively harsh conditions are going on at Foxconn City.) But they're not engineers, and Bradsher and Duhigg are fooling people who are going to be making these assertions at their Georgetown cocktail parties. "Pity, Charles, the US doesn't have enough engineers. We ought to make more of them."

(Even then, there are plenty of people who are willing to work at the crazy-go-nuts pace and conditions that an Amazon warehousing/shipping facility performs at. Are they skilled mathematical technicians? No, probably not. That might be an issue.)

Needless to say, consumer electronics assembly is something that the US has lost for the near and medium term. Obviously, that's undesirable, but that's the truth of it. I hope we are wise enough not to lose any more industries overseas.

Best wishes to all of us.

20 comments:

  1. I've forwarded this on to my management along with a request to build dormitories on campus.

    Take THAT, China.

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  3. An equally cynical view from Ubersoft.com a webcomic that takes on the giants of the computing world on a regular basis (they're such easy targets!).

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  4. The problem with american workers is that the midnight biscuits they accept have to be from Peperige farm and instead of green tea they would drink arabica coffee, which does not seem like much but multiply it on scale 200,000 workers, every night, and you can see why this is unsustainable. And whats even worse, the disgruntled employees can sue the company whereas in China, for a nominal consultation fee, the local party chief in China will makes sure the potencial troublemakers are permanently removed before they even get into a mischief against the company.

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  5. "Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute..."

    Shouldn't the story be inept technical management on Apple's end?

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  6. A9:22a:

    Apple has that weird top-down thing from Steve Jobs. From the article:

    In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Mr. Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.

    Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.

    People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

    After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.

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    1. CJ, I too was struck by the following comment from the cited article:

      "In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. 'They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,' Mr. Schmidt said."

      My guess is that a vocational school graduate would be more than qualified for an en masse assembly job provided by Foxconn. Unfortunately, American culture has become so image-conscious and materialistic that vocational programs are viewed with disdain. One can argue that a major downfall of US K-12 education is, paradoxically, its insistence upon uniformity (e.g., No Child Left Behind). Although everyone should be literate and comprehend basic arithmetic, not everyone is "meant" for college or grad school. Consequently, we are creating too many expensive graduates for too few high-level jobs.

      Perhaps the US could benefit from following the regimented Germanic educational model (hauptschule, realschule, gymnasium). Proper resource allocation (yes, people are resources) along with compromise (i.e., sacrificing of certain perquisites) has enabled most of the Germanic countries to withstand the recent Eurozone turmoil. Among the fully industrialized "First World" nations, the US has the largest population and highest birth rate. In reality, the US can compete in the arena of cheap, semi-competent labor of China and India. However, to do so would entail the distasteful lowering of expectations. Do you think that we are up to it?

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    2. Walter Issacson tells a completely different story about the iPhone gorilla glass in his Steve Jobs biography, where he tells of an interchange between Jobs and the CEO of Corning Glass,and how Corning Glass repurposed a factory practically overnight to start producing the gorilla glass that they had invented back in the 1960s, when no one was interested.

      http://catholictechtalk.com/2011/01/04/why-is-the-iphone-glass-so-durable-answer-guerilla-glass/?doing_wp_cron=1331299387

      Or I wonder if Issacson's story was about a later version of iPhone, where Corning came into the picture.

      http://touchreviews.net/iphone-5-gorilla-glass-2-ipad-3-smart-case/

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  7. http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/02/ff_joelinchina/all/1

    Something to look forward to......

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  8. It's a mystery why we don't have enough experienced manufacturing workers. Hmmmm...I wonder why.

    I wish we could talk about something other than racing to the bottom. We don't want to make workers live in dorms, work 16 hr/day and get paid $1.30/hr. Surely there's a better way.

    Seriously, it's no wonder the press is confused about STEM employment if what companies are really looking for are experienced manufacturing technicians willing to work for peanuts.

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  9. There's a great "This American Life" podcast about working conditions at Foxconn and similar facilities in Shenzhen, China. The take home message about the why the companies are there is that there is simply not a cheaper way of mass producing things than having someone put it together by hand for a salary of maybe $250/month (or something else ridiculously low as this). So I doubt the problem is finding someone in the western world to organize these people, but finding someone willing to work the 90 h weeks and get paid squat to do it.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory

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    1. @5:24: I heard that broadcast a few weeks ago on the radio. I was driving somewhere and pulled over just to listen to it all. Pretty Dickensian. In one part they talked about workers whose hands were pretty much useless from all the hexane they'd been exposed to while cleaning the screens. I've been getting solvents on me every day for ten years, but those workers are ruined in six months because they get little to no PPE. And when they can't work anymore they're fired and blacklisted if they complain. Behold, the "free market."

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  10. That article was a fascinating read this weekend. I can't imagine how crappy life must be for these assembly workers in China. They work hard for meager salaries, are fed cheap slop, live in crappy housing on campuses, work 12-hour shifts that disrupt their family life, and are subject to the last-minute whims of management that completely change their projects.

    Obviously, the manufacturing industry in China is modeled after graduate school in the US.

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  11. Paul,

    What is sad about the graduate school analogy, is that graduate students often work very long hours, live in dorms close to campus and often are very smart. Yet, their job opportunities are still bad in America.

    I think the executives have a point when they say that the American economy is just not flexible enough. You could work hard, be skilled, but still not get a job because a company sees too many obstacles in your country.

    Americans may complain they are being offered a lower living standard. But that is probably better than being unemployed, broke and losing valuable skills to time. It would be better if we just let a free, fluid market take hold that could compete with such a fluid, but unfree, competitor such as China.

    Something is better than nothing.

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    1. Americans may complain they are being offered a lower living standard. But that is probably better than being unemployed, broke and losing valuable skills to time. It would be better if we just let a free, fluid market take hold that could compete with such a fluid, but unfree, competitor such as China.

      Something is better than nothing


      Is it?

      Americans aren't all griping about having no jobs, they're griping because the jobs they can get are all low paying with no benefits, barely enough to cover the basics. Heaven forbid you get sick or injured. You think any of those workers in that factory get health insurance?

      The poverty level in the US is roughly $22,000 (total yearly income) for a family of four. That works out to about $2K a month, $500 a week, or roughly $12/h for a 40 hour week. Did you read the article as to how much those 'engineers' were making in China for 12h/day 6d/week shifts, living in dormitories? Tell me what major city in the US you can live in for that income without having to fortify your house?

      A policy that increases the amount of people at or below the poverty line, which it would, is not progress.

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  12. Anonymous @2:12

    What uninspiring drivel. If there was anything we learned from the labor movement and the Great Depression. The "Something is better than nothing" attitude will leave you less and less of "something" as the days and years go on. Why should we settle for crapping all over labor because working 12 hour days in poverty is better than not working at all.

    The fact is we didn't, and the U.S. and perhaps the world was much better for two, maybe three generations, of U.S. prosperity by creating a wealthier middle/consumer class.

    In the race to the bottom, Well, why bother being a chemist? Why bother trying to succeed at anything? Why bother seeking any sort of professional advancement and education if you are still going to be working a 70 hours a week wearing the last set of clothes your parents bought for you in college? We all know that these professional highly skilled degrees make us very inflexible to global whims, I'm sorry demands. Unskilled labor is very mobile and flexible. One can pick up a shovel one day, flip burger the next. As many of us chemists have been finding out, those transitions don't come as easy to us.

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    1. Gosh, the more I read about Steve Jobs, the less I admire him as a Buddhist. While Buddhism espouses enlightenment through discarding of desire, Jobs exploited peoples' desires in order to make substantial profits for Apple. If anything, Jobs could be described as a reincarnation of Andrew Carnegie or any of the Gilded-Age Robber-Barons (no wonder he was profiled in Pirates of Silicon Valley). Rather than "Think Different" (damn it, it should be "Think Differently"!), Apple's true philosophy is best summarized by another quote from the NYT article, "We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."

      What a shame, US Pharma could really use a Steve Jobs. At least he had the same mentality and egomania as the existing CEOs. (see following excerpts from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/10/31/BUHP1LOI3O.DTL#ixzz1kO1zBQ10):

      • It's not clear to what extent Jobs might have returned the compliment. He was, according to the biography written by Walter Isaacson, highly critical of Obama, at one point telling the president to his face, "You're headed for a one-term presidency." He also offered to help create ads for Obama's re-election campaign.

      • "I'm not going to get slotted in for a token meeting so that he can check off that he met with a CEO," Jobs told his wife, Laurene Powell. The least the president of the United States could do, Jobs added, was to invite the Apple CEO personally.

      • Jobs did attend a Silicon Valley dinner for Obama with local CEOs, hosted by Doerr in February, but not before objecting to the menu, particularly "a cream pie tricked out with chocolate truffles." The White House overruled the objection on the grounds that "the president liked cream pie.

      • "When it came to his turn, Jobs talked about the United States' lack of software engineers, and said that any foreign student who got an engineering degree at a U.S. university should automatically be offered a green card. Obama responded that such a change had to be part of the proposed Dream Act - allowing undocumented immigrants who graduated from a U.S. high school to become legal residents - which Republicans had blocked."

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  13. Ironic that American corporations are so quick to pigeon-hole employees and job candidates into certain roles/jobs when they claim "flexibility" is so important to their success.

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  14. Everything they say in that article provides further proof to my long-standing argument that outsourcing has nothing to do with money and everything with MBA's desire to deal with docile and subservient workforce.

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  15. We used to have (a bit) more flexibility. The garment industry in New york, the old Silicon Valley, Route 128 in Boston. By building "clusters", you can have the advantages of quick response without putting your employees in dorms. In parts of Boston, you can job-hop from high-tech firm to high-tech firm without changing your commute or changing your favorite break place for tea or coffee. If (and this is a big if) housing were affordable near those locations, you could even go home for that coffee. Instead the high-tech worker I know has a 90-minute commute to all of those high-tech firms.

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