“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).
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.
Most American children just aren’t interested in studying engineering. As a result, nearly 54 percent of our PhDs in engineering and 42 percent of our master’s degrees go to foreign nationals. So, even if we increase U.S. university enrollments, the majority of these students will benefit our global competitors.
And, sadly, our top engineering graduates don’t always become engineers. They move into finance or management consulting — both of which pay far higher salaries than engineering. I have seen the dilemma that my engineering students at at Duke University have faced. Do they take a job in civil engineering that pays $70,000, or join big Wall Street financial firm and make $120,000? With the hefty student loans that hang over their heads, most have made the financially sensible decision. In some years, half of our graduates have ended up taking jobs outside of engineering. Instead of developing new types of medical devices, renewable energy sources and ways to sustain the environment, my most brilliant students are designing new ways to help our investment banks engineer the financial system.
Instead of trying to compete with India and China on their graduation numbers, let’s focus, instead, on our core strength: Our engineers can think outside the box. Unlike the graduates of Chinese and Indian universities, U.S.-educated engineers learn a broad variety of skills, including strong interpersonal skills and an understanding of customers and markets — and, most importantly, they can innovate. The graduates of U.S. engineering programs are productive from the day they graduate. It usually takes Chinese and Indian graduates three to five years to reach this proficiency. Our engineering education system is the world’s best and gives us a big advantage in productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship.
There is no doubt that having more engineers is better than having fewer. But let’s understand that, in a free economy, supply always responds to demand. This means that, if we created the strong demand for engineers and offered the high salaries that Silicon Valley does, we would see the same spurt in enrollments that computer science has seen of late. Increasing supply is not the solution. Instead, we need to make engineering more relevant.
We also need to make the engineering profession “cool” again, with the same sense of excitement and urgency in engineering and science that we saw during the Sputnik days. Back then, engineering was considered essential to the nation’s survival. Engineers and scientists were national heroes. It’s not that we don’t have problems to solve. The economy is in dire straits. Natural resources such as food, water, and crude oil are becoming scarce. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. But we’re not offering our best minds incentive to solve them.
There is already a blueprint for how to create the excitement. In 2008, several engineering deans, under the guidance of National Academy of Engineering president Charles Vest, came together to create a list of Grand Challenges that can be solved by engineers, in our lifetime. These were in several broad areas of human concern: sustainability, health, vulnerability and joy of living.
We can use such a model. Let’s focus on creating national competitions and making the necessary investments to solve these challenges. This could be, as President Obama has said, the new “Sputnik moment” — the turning point that would provide the boost to innovation and entrepreneurship that our country desperately needs.