Too Few Engineers?

Vivek Wadhwa


Is America about to lose its competitive edge to India and China? University deanfs, business executives, and political leaders have cited statistics showing that these countries graduate twelve times as many engineers each year as the U.S. does. Some say we're going to be in trouble unless we dramatically increase the numbers of engineers we graduate.

There would be reason to worry if there were indeed a looming shortage of engineers and if the numbers in this debate were accurate. But a team of student researchers at the Pratt School of Engineering has determined that some of the most frequently cited statistics on engineering graduates are inaccurate. We're actually in good shape on the numbers of engineering graduates and far ahead in the quality of education we offer.

Having founded two tech companies, I've long been at the center of the outsourcing debate and understand the issues. I knew that with a master's in engineering management from Duke, these students were destined to be leaders. As Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson says, "leadership can't be outsourced." But I was embarrassed that I couldn't answer basic questions from our engineering students: What courses would lead to the best job prospects? What jobs were "outsourcing proof"?

At Johnson's suggestion, we decided to research the topic. With the help of Duke sociology professor Gary Gereffi, we picked a team of our brightest engineering students and set out to compare international engineering degrees and analyze employment opportunities. First we wanted to get a handle on the facts.

The most commonly cited numbers for annual engineering graduation are 600,000 from institutions of higher education in China, 350,000 from India, and 70,000 from the U.S. We simply couldn't find the basis for these numbers. It seems that the first reference to them was made by an American technology executive in Taiwan in 2002. The same numbers have been used repeatedly ever since, with sources citing each other.

Our team determined that in 2004, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the U.S. graduated 222,335 engineers; India, 215,000. The closest comparable number reported by China is 644,106, but this likely includes majors that we would not classify as engineering, such as auto mechanics. Looking strictly at four-year degrees, the U.S. graduated 137,437 engineers vs. 112,000 from India and 351,537 from China. All of these numbers include information-technology and related majors.

We also noted a difference between the skill and education level of engineers and concluded that those with higher-quality educations would always be in demand. We differentiated between what we called "dynamic engineers" and "transactional engineers." Dynamic engineers are capable of abstract thinking and high-level problem-solving. These engineers thrive in teams, work well across international borders, have strong interpersonal skills, and lead innovation. Transactional engineers may possess engineering fundamentals but not the experience or expertise to apply this knowledge to larger problems. These individuals typically perform rote tasks in the work force.

One of the key differences between the two types of engineers is their education. The capstone design course that many U.S. engineering students take in their senior year enables them to integrate knowledge gained from fundamental coursework in the applied sciences and engineering. Programs like Duke's Master of Engineering Management take this a step further and provide students with the skills needed to become business-savvy engineers who are better able to address the complex technical and business issues associated with technology innovation.

Contrary to the popular view that India and China have an abundance of engineers, recent reports show that both countries may actually face severe shortages of dynamic engineers. The vast majority of graduates from these counties have the qualities of transactional engineers.

Our report received international media coverage and created quite a stir in the outsourcing debate. It caused the National Academies to revise an assessment they recently published on U.S competitiveness. Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times columnist, added a page to the 2006 update of his book The World is Flat discussing our findings. We even got the attention of top political leaders.

The question one could ask is why it took a bunch of Duke engineering students to shed light on such an important issue. Late last year, both the Democrats and Republicans announced major initiatives to bolster U.S competitiveness and cited faulty graduation data as one of the justifications.

There are calls by political and business leaders to double the number of engineering graduates in order to stay competitive with India and China. Yet if you analyze U.S. salary data, there doesn't seem to be any indication of a general shortage of engineers. We may gain competitive advantage by graduating more in certain fields of engineering, but no one has conducted research on what we actually need. It also seems that 25 to 40 percent of engineering graduates from top schools like Duke find better opportunities in fields outside engineering.

We're now taking our research a step further. We want to determine what types of engineering jobs have already been outsourced, what jobs companies expect to outsource, and what skills or education will give us a long-term advantage.

As a technology executive, I learned to sleep with one eye open. There is always looming competition, and it doesn't take much to lose your edge. India and China have growing economies and a big advantage in their numbers. But they don't have what we have--the best universities in the world, which produce broadly educated graduates who can think creatively. Rather than battling our new competitors on their turf and competing on numbers, let's focus on quality and innovation.

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