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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Eyes Romanian Engineers

PLOIESTI, Romania -- There probably is not another Raytheon office campus on Earth where mangy dogs and underdressed students of the manicure arts wander the grounds.

But it is here, in the dormitories of a run-down vocational high school, that Raytheon is joining America's experiment with Romania's distorted economy.

It is going so well that the company is erecting a new $8 million office building across town. Instead of being upstairs from the car-repair, dressmaking and barber classes, Raytheon will be next door to Ploiesti's lone citadel of higher education: The University of Oil and Gas.

"No liberal arts here," chuckled Peter Stephenson, general manager of Raytheon's 300-people operation, which he plans to expand to 500. "You've got to be an oil-or-gas man. And we'll do our recruiting next door."

In cities across Romania, U.S. companies are taking advantage of one of the legacies of Romania's dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled for 25 years before he was overthrown and executed in 1989: obsessed with industrialization, he nearly bankrupted his country building huge steel mills, oil refineries and factories. Many now lie rusting, but the engineering schools he grafted onto Romania's already excellent school system are still pumping out graduates.

Romania, according to the Romanian-American Capital and Trade Development Group, is top-heavy with engineers and has twice the number of computer science graduates per capita that the United States does and seven times India's.

And they work cheap. The economics can be compelling to companies like Raytheon, the defense contractor based in Lexington, Massachusetts. The average Romanian earns $1,000 a year; an engineer only twice that. For less than $5,000 a year, a foreign company can hire the best and brightest here to do work for which it would pay at least $60,000 a year in the United States.

Other American engineering companies here include Cambric Consulting of Draper, Utah, which has 300 employees, and Harza Engineering of Chicago, which builds hydroelectric plants and has an agreement with the national Hydroelectric Institute to "borrow" 100 of its engineers for big projects. The institute's engineers earn paltry Romanian government salaries when there is no work, but several times that when Harza has work for them.

This may not be what some Western workers want to hear, especially after the breakdown of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle early this month. But there is not even a loading dock they can picket. In place of a giant sucking sound made by these jobs going overseas is the quiet click of an Internet connection.

It is unclear whether they are costing any American jobs at all. By providing an extra work force at a time when tens of thousands of engineering job opportunities are going begging in the United States, they probably enhance the prospects for American firms in the global marketplace. Engineers here worked simultaneously with teams in Princeton, New Jersey, and Thailand on the design of a new Thai power plant; the model could reside on a computer in any country, and the Romanians could work on it while the Americans were eating breakfast and the Thais were fighting the evening rush hour. They helped design a polystyrene plant for Poland, a chemical plant for Equatorial Guinea, detergent and cigarette factories for Romania and a Pringles potato chip factory for Belgium.

And some Raytheon workers seem quite pleased with their new situation.

Doina Fortuna, 42, is a design technician who uses the computer model to extract blueprints for builders. Like approximately half her Raytheon co-workers, she worked for decades at the Institute for Petrochemical Installation Design, a government institution privatized only three months ago. There, she worked on an easel with pens and T-squares; here she uses a $30,000 desktop computer, earns nearly triple her old pay, and has been sent to the Netherlands to learn new software.

She is not bothered by the campus, which despite its run-down surroundings, has roomy desks, sunlight and rugs on the floors.

"I visited the institute a year ago, and I was afraid to go in the corridors because it was too dark, too small," she said. "You'll never see an office such as this there."