NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
BY SARAH OGDEN
In 2011, amid partisan battles over how to balance the federal budget and reduce spending, Congress passed a law with a nuclear option. As part of the Budget Control Act, budget sequestration—an automatic reduction of federal spending—will begin in January 2013 unless Congress approves a deficit-reduction bill with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts. The sequester would cost tens of thousands of federally employed engineers their jobs, drastically reduce the number of federal contracts available to engineers, and significantly cut federally funded research and development and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs. The sequester is set to last through 2021.
While many expect sequestration to benefit the U.S. economy in the long-run, the short-term impact of this radical policy looks to be dire. A study commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association and conducted by George Mason University found that sequestration will cost more than 60,000 federal architecture and engineering employees their jobs in 2013 alone.
Budget sequestration will also threaten the engineering firms that depend on government contracts for work. With the defense procurement budget set to be cut by 19%, defense contractors have already estimated potential job losses at one million. Nondefense procurement will also see significant cuts. And with fewer contracts to go around, increased award protests are likely as competitors fight more intensely for the work that remains available. Further, manufacturers of some government products may begin to seek overseas buyers, resulting in the outsourcing of related engineering jobs.
Sequestration could create a long-term knowledge gap in the engineering workforce, as well. As defense programs requiring specialized engineering skills are downsized, fewer engineers will attain the knowledge required to perform those services. Once the demand for engineers with these skills increases again, though—as is expected when sequestration ends—it will take years to rebuild the workforce to full capacity, compounding the engineering shortage the U.S. already faces.
In addition to its direct impact on jobs, the budget sequester will significantly curtail federally funded R&D. The new ideas and technology that result from federally funded research drive global competitiveness. Yet the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates that nondefense R&D will be cut by $1.1 billion in 2013. The White House Office of Management and Budget estimates that the National Science Foundation would lose about 1,500 research grants.
K12 schools, where students decide to pursue engineering education and careers, will also lose out under sequestration. Funding for the Department of Education, which oversees key STEM education programs, will be cut by $4 billion. The State Grants for Career and Technical Education program, which prepares high school, technical, and community college students for employment in STEM fields, will be slashed by nearly $87.6 million in 2013, translating to 1.1 million fewer students served. Other programs that promote STEM education by helping students meet core standards in math, providing teachers with professional development, and helping improve the poorest schools will also see cuts.
Few on either side of the aisle disagree that budget sequestration is bad policy: It was designed to be. The threat of mutually assured destruction—indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts—was meant to bring warring parties to the table and force a balanced budget compromise. Because the specially appointed Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the so-called "super committee") failed to reach compromise and avoid sequestration last November, it is hoped that Congress will act this November in a postelection effort to head off disaster. With the effective date of the sequester looming and the outcome of the elections uncertain, however, stakeholders' nerves are wearing thin.
Congress must act decisively to avoid budget sequestration. Clearly, deficit reduction is important to our nation's continued prosperity, but spending cuts should be managed deliberately through a bipartisan deficit reduction agreement, not with the blunt instrument of sequestration. Cutting the federal engineering workforce, threatening the profitability of engineering firms that contract with the government, stifling the research that fuels innovation, and stymieing the STEM education programs that encourage the next generation of engineers—as would occur under sequestration—would undermine our nation's competitiveness and weaken the engineering profession.