“A chronic shortage of engineering students threatens America’s role as the world’s leading innovator and continues to impede our nation’s fragile economic recovery,” wrote Paul Otellini, a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, in a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post. The council is holding a series of meetings to find ways to fix a perceived national problem: an engineering shortage. Otellini and the council claim that such a shortage seriously threatens America’s ability to create jobs, and that the U.S. risks losing its innovation edge to China and India, which are producing a million engineers per year — 12 times as many as the United States. The council hopes to increase U.S. engineering output by 10,000 engineers per year in an effort to deal with this crisis.
The logic behind this argument is flawed in many ways. First let’s tackle the myth of the Rising East’s mastermind engineers. China and India’s engineering graduation numbers have been used for the past decade to justify arguments that the United States is in trouble. My research team at Duke University dispelled common myths about China’s and India’s engineering-education advantages in December 2005. The graduation statistics most commonly touted then were: China graduates 600,000 per year, India, 350,000, and the U.S., 70,000. We found that, in 2004, when comparing apples with apples, the U.S. had graduated more engineers (roughly 140,000) than India had (roughly 120,000).
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
What’s more, China’s tally of 350,000 was suspect because China’s definition of “engineering” was not consistent with that of U.S. educators. Some “engineers” were auto mechanics or technicians, for example. We didn’t dispute that China was and is dramatically increasing its output of what it calls engineers. This year, China will graduate more than 1 million (and India, close to 500,000). But the skills of these engineers are so poor that comparisons don’t make sense. We predicted that Chinese engineers would face unemployment. Indeed, media reports have confirmed that the majority of Chinese engineers don’t take engineering jobs but become bureaucrats or factory workers.
Then there is the question of whether there is a shortage of engineers in the United States. Salaries are the best indicator of shortages. In most engineering professions, salaries have not increased more than inflation over the past two decades. But in some specialized fields of software engineering in Silicon Valley and in professions such as petroleum engineering, there have been huge spikes. The short answer is that there are shortages in specific fields and in specific regions, but not overall. Graduating more of the wrong types of engineers is likely to increase unemployment rather than create jobs.
The U.S. does, however, have a problem: Some of its best engineers are not doing engineering, and some of its best potential engineers are not even studying engineering, leaving us short-changed in solving the important problems of the day.