On the Shortage of US Engineers

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 8/20/2007 11:12:00 AM
Leave it to (rather useless) political science types like your truly to become interested in more usable vocations. It's a commonly heard refrain: China and India will soon leave the US in the dust in the innovation sweepstakes because they have millions of graduates in engineering each year whereas America graduates far fewer. A recent feature in Newsweek says that this scenario isn't a convincing one. For, the quality of education in these countries is not comparable to that in the US when it comes to gaining the capability to generate innovations:
But these stats only tell half the story. Many of the [engineering] graduates can't find work, and corporate recruiters in both countries lament a dearth of qualified applicants. "Out of the huge number of engineering and science graduates that India produces, only 25 to 30 percent can be regarded as suitable," says Kiran Karnik, head of the National Association of Software and Services Companies. The reason? Underfunding and a range of other factors have produced serious educational crises in India and China. These problems could soon wreak havoc on their economies. To sustain their breakneck growth, the countries will need lots of high-quality engineers and scientists. Yet neither have enough reliable universities to produce them. M.A. Pai, who taught at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, warns that the "lack of highly trained people at the Ph.D. level in both sciences and engineering will be a serious setback to India becoming a knowledge economy..."

Experts also complain that Chinese schools emphasize rote memorization, which often "detracts from the quality of education," says Mao, who believe China's system fails to teach practical applications or to instill creativity. "That's why students in the United States might not have good marks in class but can produce effective missile technology, while students in China enjoy good marks in class but might not be able to make sufficiently good missiles," he says.
Another commentary I saw in eWeek a few moons ago cited a Duke University study whose findings were that China and India are hardly leaving the US in the dust. It is cost savings--not a lack of engineers or a loss of capabilities--that is driving the outsourcing phenomenon. However, the US still needs to improve its educational system at the primary and tertiary levels:

Yet, it is cost savings, and not the education of Indian and Chinese workers, or a shortage of American engineers that has caused offshore outsourcing, the study asserts.

"Respondents said the advantages of hiring U.S. engineers were strong communication skills, an understanding of U.S. industry, superior business acumen, strong education or training, strong technical skills, proximity to work centers, lack of cultural issues, and a sense of creativity and desire to challenge the status quo," wrote [author Vivek] Wadhwa in the 2007 report.

"The key advantage of hiring Chinese entry-level engineers was cost savings, whereas a few respondents cited strong education or training and a willingness to work long hours. Similarly, cost savings were cited as a major advantage of hiring Indian entry-level engineers, whereas other advantages were technical knowledge, English language skills, strong education or training, ability to learn quickly, and a strong work ethic."

The report concludes by stating that outsourcing will continue to build enough momentum that the next big piece to be offshored is R&D, and that these jobs will require more Master's degrees and PhDs, something China graduates more of in engineering than the United States. The number of India's engineering PhD's has remained flat, while China's has surged, the report said.

The study ultimately found that the United States has a tremendous amount of work to do to keep up, above and beyond fixing K-12 education.
By all means, do read the entire Duke article on "Where the Engineers Are" in Issues in Science and Technology that presents the most comprehensive research to date on the matter of an engineer shortage. I am including its summary below together with a chart illustrating the number of engineering graduates at the undergraduate level for each country:

Although there is widespread concern in the United States about the growing technological capacity of India and China, the nation actually has little reliable information about the future engineering workforce in these countries. U.S. political leaders prescribe remedies such as increasing U.S. engineering graduation rates to match the self-proclaimed rates of emerging competitors. Many leaders attribute the increasing momentum in outsourcing by U.S. companies to shortages of skilled workers and to weaknesses in the nation’s education systems, without fully understanding why companies outsource. Many people within and beyond government also do not seem to look ahead and realize that what could be outsourced next is research and design, and that the United States stands to lose its ability to “invent” the next big technologies.

At the Pratt School of Engineering of Duke University, we have been studying the impact of globalization on the engineering profession. Among our efforts, we have sought to assess the comparative engineering education of the United States and its major new competitors, India and China; identify the sources of current U.S. global advantages; explore the factors driving the U.S. trend toward outsourcing; and learn what the United States can do to keep its economic edge. We believe that the data we have obtained, though not exhaustive, represent the best information available and can help U.S. policymakers, business leaders, and educators chart future actions.