Dr. Norman Matloff

Striking Boeing Engineers Outdated?


The March 18 issue of The Economist has an article about the Boeing engineer strike. One of the interesting passages is the following:

 While it battles with the old guard [who apparently led the strike], the company needs to worry about what will happen to its younger skilled workers. Boeing's managers insist that their offer is competitive by the standards of the industry. But in Seattle few people below the age of 50 with a technical degree worry much about what British Aerospace or Northrop pays its engineers. Kelly Bunn, a 38-year-old software expert, quit after 11 years at Boeing...A mere 24 hours after an interview at a fast-growing local software company, he had a new job and a 30% pay raise.

The Seattle strike is about the possessors of an old skill trying to hang on in a changing world. But it is also about a younger lot with a new skill, and even keener expectations.

So there you see it: Once again, it is not a matter of having too few people trained in engineering and computer science, which is the claim of the industry lobbyists. It is a matter of rapidly-changing technologies in which older workers are not given the chance to participate.

As is often the case, it takes an outsider, in this case the British magazine (they call it a "newpaper") The Economist to have such insight. In all the articles on the Boeing strike which have appeared in the American press, I am not aware of any which brought up these points. On the contrary, the American press continues to give the impression that any engineer can write his/her own ticket in---the phrase used never varies---"today's hot high-tech job market." 

To be sure, even The Economist didn't get it completely right. Even among the younger programmers at Boeing, most would not have the "hot" skills needed to get into one of the software startups. And The Economist bought into that phony industry claim that the average programmer in the Seattle area is making $236,000 per year in salary plus exercizing stock options. This is highly misleading, as I explain in my "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage" paper: 

The ITAA has cited an Associated Press story (Tacoma News Tribune, May 13, 1997) in which Bret Bertolin of the Office of the Forecast Council of the State of Washington notes that a large number of programmers in Washington cashed in on stock options in 1995, bringing their overall compensation to over $100,000. But Bertolin, in an interview with me on May 12, 1998, said, ``That's misleading. This is mainly Microsoft employees cashing in on options they received six years earlier. A new employee cannot walk into Microsoft today and count on a windfall six years from now.''

How can a sophisticated bunch like the people at The Economist fall for this trick? The Economist article says that the mean salary for engineers at Boeing is $63,000, and then cites that $236,000 figure. Come ON, The Economist. If that $236,000 figure were meaningful, given such a huge disparity in compensation, how come the Boeing engineers are striking over penny-ante issues such as employer- vs. employee-paid health insurance?!