Canadian Consulting Engineer

The International Traffic in Engineering

January 1, 2007
By Bronwen Parsons

We're all used to it now ... the delayed click after you've picked up the phone, and then the accented voice trying to sell you a phone service or newspaper subscription. From the muffled connection a...

We’re all used to it now … the delayed click after you’ve picked up the phone, and then the accented voice trying to sell you a phone service or newspaper subscription. From the muffled connection and background chatter you know that while they’re selling you a Canadian product, they’re speaking from a call centre thousands of miles away — half a world away, in fact. Thanks, but no thanks, you try to interrupt. Then it’s your turn … click, and you’ve cut them off.

The practice of outsourcing labour overseas to developing countries is not confined to unskilled work such as telephone sales. Engineering companies are farming out millions of dollars of engineering detailing and drafting to countries like India and the Philippines. The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA) is so concerned that it had its practice review committee conduct an inquiry. The resulting report dated May 2006 estimated conservatively that in one year Alberta imported $400 million worth of engineering services. The committee found that the biggest players are the oil and gas engineering companies, including those involved in the rampant oilsands developments.

Of course these companies are capitalizing on the cheap labour rates overseas. Another reason for them importing engineering services, however, is the chronic shortage of engineers and skilled drafters at home. And the shortage isn’t just in western Canada. On page 45, David Foot and Douglas Urban of Hatch Energy worry about the dearth of skilled workers in Ontario’s electricity sector.

Contracting engineering work to be done offshore raises questions about quality control and who is responsible for it. There is some evidence that engineers here feel pressure to approve and stamp the drawings that are being imported. Although APEGGA has satisfied itself that companies are being diligent in reviewing the documents generated overseas, the APEGGA report recommended that the organization should draw up suitable guidelines for this very practice.

On a philosophical level, one has to wonder what’s going on in the minds of those drafters in India or the Philippines as they slave away on projects for distant lands. There is a cold disconnection between the man/woman and their product in this new international division of labour. When people abandoned their workshops and fields and moved into the factory towns during the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, the changes brought on huge social and political upheavals. With globalization, the psychological rift between the worker and his product has become a chasm. One wonders what may be the long-term repercussions.

Unlike factory workers, engineers have been able to maintain a reasonably direct relationship with the thing they are creating … until now. One can’t help but be sad, then, for the engineers and drafters overseas who have to dedicate their lives to producing drawings for plants or other structures that they will never see built or even hear of again. They’ll never have the satisfaction of finding out how things turned out. What’s worse, they probably don’t even care.


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