The work moving to Asia is not a one-way flow out of the United States. In fact, says GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson, the Asian engineering centers are creating work for U.S. engineers in the short term as the two continents develop vehicles for both continents jointly.
But how will the Asia centers affect long-term employment of engineers in the United States?
"I don't know," Wilkinson says.
Wringing costs out its engineering operations has been a high priority at GM. From 1992 through 2000, GM North America consolidated 11 engineering organizations into one group, reducing U.S. costs by 40 percent during that time, GM says. The company said head counts of engineers before and after the consolidation are not available.
The number of engineers in North America is "probably slowly declining as we continue to pick up efficiencies and take cost out," Wilkinson says. Linking engineering centers around the world allows "work to flow where it needs to flow."
GM's Asia operations are benefiting.
The automaker's Shanghai engineering operation, called the Pan-Asia Technical Automotive Center, or PATAC, was established in 1997. It is a 50-50 joint venture of GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. The two also are partners in four manufacturing ventures and an auto financing company.
Almost all parts that PATAC engineers worked on in the operation's early years were designed and approved for use, or "released," by engineers in the United States, says one source in China, a former PATAC engineer. PATAC simply integrated the parts, that is, tweaked them so they worked together.
That is changing. Important parts such as camshafts and pistons still are designed and released in the United States, he said. But some parts - such as brackets and heater pipes - are designed and released in China.
North American engineers supervise the Chinese engineers' work through weekly conference calls and quarterly visits to China.
GM says it would like to see PATAC's role increase so it can eventually engineer a complete vehicle.
Wilkinson says that PATAC could eventually engineer a vehicle for the United States, "but China has an immediate need first" for PATAC's output.
Lower pay in Asia clearly is an incentive to send work there. In China, an engineer with five years of experience who is a team leader can make $43,000 a year, say engineering sources in China. GM Daewoo says the average salary of its engineers is $42,000.
In the Detroit area, the average salary for an engineer with about five years of experience is $72,814, says the American Society of Employers in Southfield, Mich., which tracks pay for area companies.
But low pay is not the only factor behind GM's decision to use Chinese engineers.