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Educating Engineers for the New Market

As more technical jobs are sent overseas, universities are preparing engineering students for their globalized profession by broadening their skills

While debate heats up again over immigration and the movement of jobs offshore, U.S. schools are starting to come to grips with the challenges of preparing new engineers for the realities of globalization. Regardless of where one stands on the outsourcing debate, on this most experts agree: Engineering positions that involve fairly straightforward and time-consuming tasks, such as testing and producing detailed blueprints, will continue moving to wherever skilled labor is cheapest, whether that's India or West Virginia. If such jobs aren't imperiled by outsourcing, they are threatened by steady advances in automated design software.

But for jobs that demand true innovation, management skills, or close personal contact with customers, price is less of an object. So in theory, they are likely to remain close to home. "There still will be a lot of stuff that can only take place through direct interaction, and can't get ported over the network," says Richard Lester, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Industrial Performance Center. "Those are the kinds of things that engineers will be left doing here."

This presents a major challenge to U.S. engineering schools, many of which continue to pump out graduates who lack the multidimensional skills required to stay at the top of the global design food chain. "You have to ask what engineers will be doing if low-end analysis is off-shored," says Pradeep Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering. "Engineering processes change so fast, that unless you are able and willing to move into management roles, one cannot justify the really high salaries."

The answer, Khosla believes, is that tomorrow's engineers must learn to thrive in the world of globalized engineering and not be intimidated by it. High-earning engineers in the U.S. must be able to "enable, manage, and deploy innovation in a multicultural environment," he says. "There will be demand for engineers who can manage a team of two in the U.S., three in India, and four in China." The fact that the U.S. graduates 75,000 engineers with four-year degrees each year vs. around 200,000 in India should not be a problem, he says. "Once you get beyond the elite schools like the Indian Institutes of Technology, there is a big skills gap" between the U.S. and India, Khosla says. "Our 75,000 should be leveraging their 200,000."

Business Lessons

A number of elite engineering schools, such as those at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Duke University, are starting to tackle this challenge. They are redesigning curricula to teach innovation methods to undergraduates, rather than just to master's candidates. They also are introducing more courses that teach the economics of product development, techniques for managing far-flung development teams, and the ability to function in foreign cultures.

Programs at CMU illustrate the new thinking. In January, the engineering school launched a one-year master's degree in innovation management as a first step. It now has seven students, but aims for as many as 30 in a few years. One course is taught by Professor David Gerard, an economist. The idea is to give students a feel for the business aspects of engineering, such as the way markets work, how budgets are made, and how to assess project risk. "Students need an understanding of the place of engineering in the economy and public policy," Gerard says. Other courses in the program, which are to be tailored to the needs of individual students, include the strategy and management of technological innovation and work on actual projects.

CMU is developing a number of other courses on globalization. In a new course taught by Associate Professor Lucio Soibelman, a former Brazilian contractor, students are learning to work in teams on live projects with students at foreign universities. Currently, the course is limited to construction management. CMU students are working on production planning and cost analysis with other students and faculty for a tunnel being built in Israel, a light-rail system in Turkey, and a low-income housing project in Brazil. There are two faculty members in the programs at universities in each of those countries. Teams in different nations communicate via telephone, Web-conferencing, instant messaging, videoconferencing, and electronic white boards.

Learning to Adapt

The idea for a program to "teach students how to operate in a globalized way," says Soibelman, evolved from discussions with top executives and managers at U.S. firms involved in major construction projects. "They would say, 'I have to build a project in Brazil for General Motors (GM), but it is very difficult for my managers in the U.S. to know about local labor productivity and so on,'" he says. Traditionally, the only way to resolve such challenges is to form a joint venture with a local construction firm. "That is when the real problems start. We use the same technology and structural designs, but communication and understanding the culture are a problem." Soibelman says, "our students are now learning about all these things the hard way."

Meanwhile, the engineering school is planning the to launch a minor in innovation management for undergraduates next fall. And eventually, Khosla hopes to weave such topics into the entire curriculum.

The big question is whether shifting America's engineering workforce from routine to multidimensional skills will really translate into more jobs at home. Sure, corporate executives constantly complain about the shortage of engineers with the right skills and always predict big engineering shortages if the U.S. were to restrict globalization. But will they really hire as many of these Renaissance engineers to make up for the jobs lost to offshoring?

Recent studies from Duke's Pratt School of Engineering—which also offers a new master's program that teaches business and innovation—suggest that the job market for U.S. engineering graduates remains soft. MIT's Lester, whose center has various studies underway looking at the implications of globalization on U.S. engineering jobs, says it remains almost impossible to say whether the trend will cause a net loss or net gain for the U.S. "Not only do I not know the answer 10 years from now, but I don't know the answer today," he says. "And I don't think anyone else does."

Staying Positive

From Khosla's perspective at CMU, which has 1,600 engineering undergraduates and 900 master's and doctoral students, the future of the profession appears promising. Most of the school's graduates are receiving several job offers, he says, and salaries are rising. "If there is excess capacity of engineers in the U.S., I have a hard time seeing it," he says. Interest in engineering careers also is strong. Following a slump from the tech bust, enrollment of freshman engineers is up by 20% this year—and at least 85% of them are U.S. citizens or holders of green cards. "I don't see any sign that the pool is shrinking or that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel for applicants," he says.

Of course, CMU is regarded as an elite school, he notes, so it is hard to say what is happening at secondary schools. As for reports that companies are not hiring many U.S. engineers—even though their chief executives keep warning of serious shortages—Khosla has a simple explanation: What top corporate executives say and what their own human resources departments do often differ. While CEOs talk of the need for broadly trained engineers capable of driving innovation, managers who do the hiring still focus on salaries—so they are adding most of their bodies abroad. "The CEOs and chief technology officers have a broad vision about innovation and strategy," he says. "But there is a lack of communication inside the company regarding what kind of people they should hire."

That communication gap will need to close if the current efforts at U.S. universities to reinvent engineering education are to pay off.

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