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. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of engineers graduating in the United States has stagnated, while India and China surpass us with rapid progress.
For this and other critical issues shaping our nation’s future, President Obama convened the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. I serve on the council and co-lead a task force to address the need for more American engineers — the people behind the inventions and advancements that improve our quality of life and our nation’s wealth and competitiveness.
The council’s high-tech education task force is focused on programs that will yield 10,000 more engineering graduates in the United States each year and begin to address the long-term threat of our nation’s growing skills crisis. This goal requires a commitment, starting at the top, from of all U.S. firms that employ engineers.
We will be calling on U.S.-based firms to help sponsor mentoring programs, internships and permanent job commitments for students in engineering programs nationwide. While the government can provide a framework for success and recognition for the best of our engineering programs, it is up to us in the private sector to back up our rhetoric with actions and commit to the future workforce we all so desperately need.
Education Department data show that overall college graduation levels the past two decades have grown about 50 percent, with the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increasing from 1.1 million in 1990 to 1.6 million in 2010. During that same period, however, the National Center for Education Statistics has found that the number of engineers U.S. colleges and universities annually send into the workforce has virtually stagnated at around 120,000.
By contrast, roughly 1 million engineers a year graduate from universities in India and China. This education disparity threatens to slow our economic recovery, stunts our long-term competitiveness and leaves technology firms in a skills crisis.
Four decades ago, a relatively unknown Intel Corp. launched its first microprocessor in the commercial market, with approximately 450 engineers on board. Those highly skilled and motivated engineers ultimately contributed to the personal computing boom a decade later — and the ubiquitous advancement of computing technology ever since.
Today, Intel employs 52,000 people in the United States. I am proud of Intel’s contribution to our nation’s sustained growth. But from a personnel perspective, supporting a similar growth pattern would be difficult for a promising young company starting out today.
American universities are simply not producing enough engineers. A McKinsey Global Institute survey released in June found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. employers reported that engineering and science-related jobs were the hardest jobs to fill. If we do not produce suitable candidates for these jobs, companies will go elsewhere in the world to find them.
Forty percent of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics leave their program after the first year, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Engineering programs are tough, but this rate of attrition is unacceptable. Fortunately, it can be reversed. There are lucrative career opportunities for engineering students with specialized skills. If we can simply increase the retention and graduation rates of these qualified, interested students, we can move a long way toward solving our shortage while creating momentum in making engineering a valued and even “cool” area of study for our best and brightest students.
As our task force mobilizes, we will be calling on U.S. companies to take concrete steps to inspire and encourage young engineers. Intel plans to double its number of engineering internships. Along with other companies, we can create opportunities for hands-on learning that makes a difference and helps employers discover new talent.
In the coming months, the task force will roll out critical elements for success — a plan for direct student engagement and university incentives, and the formation of a consortium of companies committed to making a difference. The President’s Jobs Council plans to hold a listening-and-action session in Portland, Ore., at the end of this month at which deans from America’s top engineering colleges, students pursuing degrees in math and science, and representatives from innovative U.S. companies can share perspectives and determine next steps.
If we want the next Intel, GE, Google or Facebook to be born and grow up in America, we must begin producing more engineers. These jobs support our future.
The writer is president and chief executive of Intel Corp. and is a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.