Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Buddy, Can Ya Spare an Engineer?

March 1, 2008

Those with a Science degree ask, “Why does it work?” Those with an Engineering degree ask, “How does it work?” Those with an Accounting degree ask, “How much will it cost?” Those with a Liberal Arts degree ask, “Do you want fries with that?” 

The old joke speaks volumes about how education is perceived in North America (and accurately portrays my parents’ reaction to me pursuing a Liberal Arts degree). Whether that perception transfers to higher pay and job security is debatable, especially if you ask engineers. What rarely comes up for debate is the idea that the United States must graduate more engineers to remain competitive with the rest of the world. Many bemoan the ‘engineering shortage’ and how it supposedly hurts American R&D and the nation’s status as a technological innovator. 

Challenging that entire theory is a report issued by the Duke University School of Engineering. Released in December 2005, the report, Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate: Placing the United States on a Level Playing Field with China and India, digs deep into typically reported numbers of engineering graduates in China, India and the United States to gauge their accuracy. The report cites accepted statistics that in 2004 (the year the report focused on) the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India graduated 350,000. A closer look at the data by Duke researchers found those numbers misleading.

“These massive numbers of Indian and Chinese engineering graduates include not only four-year degrees, but also three-year training programs and (technical-course diplomas),” the report states, further noting that the numbers, obtained from the Chinese Ministry of Education and the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, include not only engineers in traditional engineering disciplines, but information technology specialists and technicians. The U.S. numbers, in contrast, reflect the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees. 

Armed with that information, the report’s authors embarked on a quest to compile more accurate statistics and make an apples-to-apples comparison. 

What they found, after contacting additional agencies and sifting through the data, is surprising. According to the report, the number of Bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States in 2004 for engineering, computer science and information technology totaled 137,437, compared to 112,000 in India and 351,537 in China. Those refigured numbers tighten things up quite a bit. Now consider, as Duke researchers did, the amount of Bachelor’s degrees awarded in these fields as a percentage of total population. Bachelor’s degrees awarded for engineering, computer science and information technology in the United States for 2004 totaled 468.3 per million citizens, 103.7 in India and 271.1 in China. If you accept those numbers, the engineering gap tilts decidedly in favor of the United States. 

The Duke report suggests that the engineering shortage is, if anything, overblown, and hints that a major reason for outsourcing engineering functions is, typical of outsourcing in general, cost. Engineering is an exacting, demanding field. It requires analytical thinking and creativity arising from a strong educational base. And the ability to produce a population of people with those qualities is a requirement for a country to succeed in technology innovation. We have that ability and, contrary to what many believe, we back it up with action.

So where to from here? Reads the report: “The challenge for the United States over the next decade will be to retain its role as a global pacesetter in the education of engineering and scientific talent and thereby to sustain its legacy as a preeminent technological innovator.” 

But let’s not go too far. After all, sometimes I do like fries with that.
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