In a March 24 announcement of new steps to keep state contractors from sending work overseas, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) revved up the rhetoric. "We need to encourage jobs in New Prague or New Ulm," he said, referring to two small towns in the state, "not New Delhi."

The rhetoric is flying in this election year as governors, members of Congress and lobbying groups of all political persuasions, not to mention engineers and contractors in the U.S. and abroad, square off on one of today’s fastest-growing global work force trends–offshoring.

The cost-influenced move to send or subcontract design and other tasks to overseas locations with cheaper payrolls, from India and the Philippines to Ukraine and Poland, is not new. Large contractors such as Bechtel Group, Fluor Corp., Jacobs Engineering Group and Washington Group International (WGI), have been offshoring for private owners for years, often at clients’ request.

In some cases, work is just spread to contractors’ less expensive overseas offices. In others, it goes to outside enterprises. "Fluor has been working with global engineering centers for at least 15 years," says Jeff Faulk, group executive for oil, gas and power. "They comprise a small part of our work force, about 1,000 people or 5% of staff around the world. This gives us a competitive advantage on cost, but more importantly, it gives us local content."

But as offshoring spreads faster and deeper into the industry’s marketplace, confusion and resentment reign. Engineers worry that media references to offshoring as "outsourcing" may confuse regulators and threaten firms’ ability to gain potentially lucrative work in commercialized government activities.

The question of offshoring’s job impact also is elusive. Opponents see thousands of U.S.-based positions headed overseas to individuals willing to work for much less. Advocates say offshoring is needed to fill current engineer gaps that will only grow over time. They add that professionals at most offshore locations, particularly in India, are highly degreed and well-supervised. "The handholding is very tight," says Prasad Bhukta, a business manager for InfoTech Enterprises, whose California unit procures offshore photogrammetry and GIS work for its Hyderabad, India, operation. Others say offshoring is creating many high-paying management jobs in the home country and a new crop of entrepreneurs.

But others wonder whether lower-paid workers can meet Western quality standards and if offshored work jeopardizes project security and the profession itself. "With work being done offshore for less, will engineers’ standard of living stagnate or decline?" asked an attendee at an engineers’ conference in May.

With the economic downturn, cost pressures have intensified for corporations and public agencies. More routine, labor intensive and often low-end functions have been moving abroad, but the trends get more attention in an election year. WashTech, a union-affiliated lobbying group in Seattle, issued a report last month that found offshored "telephone help desks" in 42 states.

Such events have prompted hasty–some say knee-jerk–responses by public officials. At least 36 states have introduced about 100 bills (click here to view map) to ban public-sector offshoring or give it a competitive disadvantage, says the National Foundation for American Policy, a pro-offshoring lobby with Republican ties. Some bills died or languish, but others passed. And some anxious governors, such as in Minnesota, imposed their own restrictions by executive order.

Offshoring proponents say they will challenge the constitutionality of the laws, but restrictive federal legislation also is crawling through Congress. U.S. engineers...