When Did Illiteracy Become a Skill?

Making its way around the blogosphere is this New York Times’ article detailing the migration of Apple from the US to China.

According to the piece, Americans, Apple asserts, can’t match “the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers.” “We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive said. “The US has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”

With all due respect to the late Mr. Jobs, this is complete bull.

When all manufacturing equipment needs to be icon-based because the migrant workers who run it can’t read, that hardly qualifies as “flexible.” “Dumbed-down” is more like it. Since when is illiteracy a skill?

American engineering prowess is second to none. It’s difficult to find even a single feature — voice calling, GPS, web browsing, MP3 — on an iPhone that wasn’t invented at least in part in the US. The ideas conceived daily by our military contractors are matched only by their amazing ability to turn those ideas into reality. We have developed, for example, a weapon system that begins as an 18″ inch tube, but when launched, “sprouts” rigid wings like a hawk and rises thousands of feet, where it is invisible to detection. That device can then zero in on a designated target miles away, and once locked on, will thrust itself toward its “prey” — even if the latter is moving — and plant its payload — a bomb — in its target’s chest.

By contrast, what exactly is it Steve Jobs’ conceived — the rectangle?

Another current Apple executive reportedly said, “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” Non sequitur aside, what that arrogant remark ignores, of course, is that without American laws, Apple likely would no longer even exist. Indeed, Bill Gates provided then-struggling Apple with $150 million in 1997 and US anti-trust laws for years forced Microsoft to capitulate on its bundled software products in order to keep the competition alive.

There’s another missing point. High volume manufacturing is still performed all over the US, just not in electronics. So as we move toward more lights-out/true full automation factories for building electronics, there’s no reason to think that product won’t be built in volume here, too. Keep in mind that following the flooding in Thailand and Malaysia and the earthquake in Japan, the cluster factory model so popular in Southeast Asia is not looking quite so good.

And another! Apple’s outsourcing overseas model works well for building mobility products. It doesn’t work so well when you are outsourcing tractors. Jobs’ hubris led him to extrapolate that he since so good in design, he must also be brilliant in economics and sociology. Not even.

Apple now has nearly $100 billion in cash on hand. But it can’t afford American engineers? Huh.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (pcea.net). He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

6 thoughts on “When Did Illiteracy Become a Skill?

  1. I think you are confusing the terms “engineers” and “workers”. Apple needs many production workers for every one development engineer, just like my own company.
    and those people are working long hours repeating tedious tasks. I agree with the author that not many Americans could do that kind of job at minimum wage for very long, but I amend it with the thought that not many humans anywhere in the world would want a job like that. You think we have carpal tunnel syndrome? nothing compared to the complete joint deterioration happening there. Try standing up for 12hours, 6 days a week with your head bent down, doing the exact same thing CONSTANTLY. I would be jumping off the roof! (and I’m not trying to be funny, I cannot imagine living that way)
    You MUST hear this story:
    If the link doesn’t work, search for “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, I heard it on “This American Life” podcast.

    Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with your main point, Mike, but as a sub-note, I WOULD NOT WANT THAT JOB!

  2. Mike, although I agree with you that the real reason factories move to China is not the worker force qualification, but the lower salaries and the softer laws. I have to disagree with your argument of insulting all people that cannot read in English as an illiterates.I’m an engineer in Uruguay, where we speak Spanish. I know very skilled people that cannot read or write in English, and they are not illiterates. You could have argued your point without insulting third parties.
    Also, it is not a happy example to be able develop a weapon to kill at great distances another human being!

  3. @Leticia:

    Thanks for your comments. Actually, I agree — an inability to read English does not make someone illiterate. I probably didn’t say that very clearly, and I’m sincerely sorry if I offended anyone. In fact, most SMT equipment is multilingual. The problem I alluded to is that the majority of the migrant workers who make up the workforces at these massive Chinese plants do not even read Chinese.

    And while you are right that technology developed to kill is not a pleasant example, the truth is much of what we take for granted in the consumer space was originally designed and developed for military applications.

  4. @Jack: I think the confusion is with Apple, not with me. One can be a technician or operator without a college degree. But an engineer? Higher level calculus, physics and statistics usually aren’t taught as part of a on-the-job training program.

  5. Hi Mike, thanks for the apologies. I didn’t like the way you expressed it, but I agree with your point. I know there even must be very well skilled engineers and people in general in China also. Not all chinese people is an illiteracy worker, fortunately. But anyway,the factories that move to China are doing it because people there are forced to work more hours, in worst job conditions, for a very low salary. Which sadly for them could be a good opportunity, in some cases I guess. They take advantage of the country laws. USA shall negotiate with China goverment to improve their work laws, do not blame the workers ( American or Chinese), that are all victims of a system here

  6. I was once one of the board designers on the Review Board for PCD&F Magazine. We had a cross-culture meeting with the Review Board people for the Fab and Assembly magazines in Pete and Mike’s stable, and that was a great forum for fertilisation across boundaries. I’m talking around the year 2000, in the hills of South Carolina when Pete was making money, just like the industry in general. Times were good.

    I heard the fab guys say that they’re sending stuff to China for fabrication because it’s cheaper, and board shops were making big bucks as a result. This was the start of the offshoring process. With a bit of training and the right equipment, I was told the system all works fine.

    I asked the logical question: “Aren’t you guys worried that in training the Chinese, they’ll eventually eat your lunch?” Oh no, I was told, “we will continue innovation and stay ahead. They will never be able to keep up.”

    Today, I ask “Oh, really?”

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