September 2, 2011 AT 12:59 pm

Mr. President, There Is No Engineer Shortage

“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.

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.

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  1. My knee jerk reaction in this economoy is that the problem isn’t the number of graduates, it’s the number of jobs available for them and business confidence to bring new people on board … but I was surprised this week to discuss embedded engineering with a university professor in the Netherlands: he said that they have a very difficult time attracting people to embedded development and he’s genuinely worried about where things are going to be in 10 or 20 years. Similar thing from a senior manager at a large semiconductor manfacturer who told me how difficult it is to find good candidates for the vacancies they currently have.

    I guess I have a hard time to understand the disconnect. I’m biased because I find embedded development fascinating, but the lack of general interest baffles me. When I look around me, the career and salary prospects in the embedded field are excellent, way better than many sectors. If you have the right experience you can find a number of six-figure jobs (US) or pretty high five figures (Europe, though with more advantages and vacation than the US) doing interesting and challenging work, with a reasonable chance of finding a replacement job if something happens. One caveat is that you need to be willing to relocate since there aren’t dozens of large companies in the field, but the opportunities are there.

    In any case, I wouldn’t be too worried about US or European graduates. Quality is far more important than raw numbers, and the level of engineering graduates in good US and EU universities is still very high … though this definately isn’t the moment for universities and governments to be sitting on their laurels either.

    What’s your take on the problem? All I see is great salaries, great and challenging jobs, and good long term prospects. Maybe I’ve been drinking the kool-aid too long???

    PS: Sorry … this is forum worthy in it’s length!

  2. As Facebook scientist and Harvard grad Jeff Hammerbacher said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

    From an interesting article at Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_17/b4225060960537.htm

  3. Color me skeptical. The author is an academic, and I have to wonder if he ever worked a day in his life at anything even remotely related to engineering.

    That being said (and I know that anectdotes, even a lot of them, are not the same as data) my experience as a working engineer has been considerably different. In my current group, our best engineers are three foreign nationals- one young man from Germany, and two young women from the South Asian subcontinent, none of whom studied in the US. I have met very few engineers who have their level of aptitude, especially when compared to their contemporaries.

    Finally, the engineers I know (especially American-educated) are more interested in career advancement to the middle and executive management level. In fact, I am considered as something of an oddity (if not a loser), because at age 50, I am still doing engineering work. Most of my contemporaries stopped doing the technical heavy-lifting by the time they were in their mid-thirties. In my case, this was by choice. I do engineering because I HAVE to. If I had followed the conventional career path I might be making more money, but I’d want to blow my brains out.

    There’s much more I could write about this, but I’ll spare all of you, and just throw in my $0.02.

  4. In my experience the majority of engineers out of India and China are extremely poor. I interface with engineers at local distributors, at customers, and even our own local engineers. It pains me that they have weak fundamentals, R,L,C’s, Kirchhoff’s laws, etc. I know there are excellent Chinese engineers, but I would not be surprised if the majority of engineers out of India or China are junk.

    My team is comprised of engineers from the US and Europe and I am always impressed with the technical aptitude of my European colleagues.

  5. Very interesting post … from the point of view of an European.
    Firstly because of the very serious concern for the techno/finance/politics concern expressed in a very factual manner. Here in France these questions are investigated or in the technology sphere or in the finance sphere, or… or … thus a weak effective response to crisis.
    Other point is that European engineers are not that bad… probably most creative and they are not even mentionned….

  6. Wow! Thanks everyone for your amazing responses!

    @didier The reason European engineers are not mentioned in the article is because the author was addressing the argument that China and India produce more engineers than the US.

    The statistic that “China produces X times more engineers than the US” is commonly cited as a example of how the US is falling behind competitively. He seems to have focused the thesis of his article on explaining how this issue is not so clear.

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