Back in your correspondent’s Version 2.3 or thereabouts, he was an engineer for Boeing. This was back in 1978-79.
My starting salary was $15,400. When I left Boeing to start my personal Version 3.0, my salary was still less than $17,000. My parents thought I was crazy to give that up and take on debt to go to law school.
Boeing was booming. Airlines were being de-regulated, airline travel was becoming less expensive while still being slightly sexy, and everyone wanted to go to Europe for the first time.
Several things about Boeing stick out in my mind. First, they didn’t compromise on quality. The airline customers could specify whatever bells and whistles they were willing to pay for — I worked on a few custom planes for Saudi princes that included frivolities like solid gold ashtrays — but the airworthiness of the plane was non-negotiable.
Second, there wasn’t enough work to keep me busy. Boeing was booming, and they had reasonably assumed that a doubling in production would necessitate a doubling in engineers. But it didn’t.
Bear in mind that, at least back in 1978, every plane out the factory door was a little different and entailed engineering in both the design and production phases. They were made on an assembly line but this particular assembly line was nothing like the ones in Detroit. They didn’t turn out hundreds of planes a day. Rather, they turned out one plane every two or three days. It was about one-fourth the current production rate of Aston Martin automobiles.
Boeing was able to double their production with no loss of quality, and without many of the new engineers they’d hired. That was a tribute to their system, to their old staff of great engineers, and to their excellent tradesmen on the factory floor – guys and a few gals with high school educations who were some of the best craftsmen I’ve ever met.
The net result was that Boeing over-hired engineers in that particular business boom. But the mistake was one of prudence. Better for an engineering company to have too many engineers than too few. (The mistake was fortuitous for me. My under-utilization was one reason I left to create my Version 3.0 as a lawyer. If not for Boeing’s mistake, I might still be there.)
In any event, engineers with not enough work are not a terrible thing. Like most other under-utilized professionals, such engineers will do whatever work they have in a very careful manner. I did. So did my colleagues. We made a great product. We loved our company and we loved our airplanes.
The third thing that made an impression on me at Boeing was that upper management had come up through the engineering ranks. They weren’t hedge fund operators or McKinsey consultants or Harvard MBA’s. They knew how to build airplanes, and how not to.
Times have changed. The current president of Boeing is a former investment banker. Although his immediate predecessor was an aerospace engineer, the one before that had a Yale liberal arts degree and a Harvard MBA. (I’m convinced that companies hire Harvard MBAs not because Harvard teaches them anything but because Harvard admitted them. Companies figure, usually correctly, that a person admitted to the Harvard MBA program must be smart.) The president before that had a B.A. in accounting, and the ones before him were lawyers and other MBAs.
You probably won’t be shocked that these non-engineers at this engineering company are now paid significantly more than $15,400 a year. Think eight figures.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s dearth of upper management engineering experience is offset by a wealth of wokeness. They of course mandate extensive diversity training and occasionally purge those who resist. The latest is that they intend to increase the number of black employees by 20%.
What’s important financially is that they get airplane orders by keeping the progs off their back with racial quotas that they simultaneously boast about and deny, and lobby furiously to curry multibillion dollar tax breaks.
Unsurprisingly, the company is now plagued by design and safety issues. It turns out that airplanes don’t get designed and built on their own or by investment bankers or by racial quotas or by skillful lobbyists or by tax breaks or by Harvard MBAs.
They get designed and built by engineers – people trained in math, science, chemistry and physics who think, despite what they are told today, that 2 + 2 = 4. Boeing was once full of such people. So was America.
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