Filling the Engineering Gap

The U.S. doesn't need to simply graduate more engineers. It needs more of the right kind of engineers. And more research into the problem sure would help

The stakes are very high in the global economic race. As India and China strive to catch up, the debate continues about what the U.S. needs to do to maintain its lead. While it seems inevitable that other economies will grow, the issue here is whether their success will lead to greater prosperity for Americans or threaten our way of life.

One of the few things on which both sides agree is that the U.S. needs to increase spending on education and research. Both the Democratic Party and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced policy initiatives last month prescribing an increase in the number of engineering graduates. They cited statistics that show the U.S. graduates about 70,000 engineers a year, while India and China graduate five and eight times that number, respectively.


  While the remedy sounds good, the problem they're trying to solve isn't what it seems. The statistics that are being cited are inaccurate (see BW Online, 12/27/05, "Engineering: Is the U.S. Really Falling?"). And simply mandating that the country should graduate more engineers may lead to a situation in which we graduate the wrong types of engineers and discourage future generations from studying engineering. As reader feedback shows, this debate is based more on emotion than fact. A lot more research is needed, and we need to differentiate between engineers.

As I wrote in my last column, (see BW Online, 12/13/05, "About the Engineering Gap"), our study at Duke University revealed that the engineering graduation numbers commonly cited in this debate are inaccurate. In an apples-to-apples comparison, the U.S. actually graduated more engineers than India last year, and the Chinese numbers aren't comparable. It's not that the U.S. graduation numbers are wrong. as Salil Tripathi from The Wall Street Journal reported, the comparison was false: Washington apples were being compared to Alphonso mangoes and Chinese litchis.

Reader feedback to my column shows the diverging views and opinions on this topic. Some claimed that our numbers are absurd and that we were painting an unduly rosy picture of America. Others suggest that this was a misinformation campaign against India. Some thanked us for setting the record straight. Others felt that by saying America was strong, we had done a disservice to the country. Many who lauded our study suggested that previous inaccurate data was being used to disadvantage American workers. Some experts attacked our motives.


  Most surprising were comments from two journalists who interviewed me about the study. A reporter from a top Indian newspaper said this story would hurt India's "national ego" and chided me for being disloyal to the country of my origin. And the editor of a U.S. tech weekly demanded to know my nationality and asked if the Indian government had funded our project.

On the other hand, Gail Pesyna, program director at the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said our report had generated a lot of excitement not only in the larger world, but also inside the Sloan Foundation. She thanked us for taking the debate up one notch.

The most perceptive feedback we received was from Professor Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. He was impressed that a team of students was quickly able to make a contribution to the factual aspects of the debate.

He wrote, "I have never believed all the moaning and groaning about how hard it is to figure out the numbers.... I learned the main problem was that no one chose to break a sweat doing the research.... 'Facts' are few because few people work on ascertaining them, and many of those who want to use the 'facts' are happy to use a misleading selection that serves their interests."


  With facts being in short supply, both sides of the debate use available statistics to justify their positions. Many have lobbied to raise immigration barriers based on the threat from abroad. Yet in its State of American Business 2006 report, the Chamber of Commerce uses the incorrect engineering graduate numbers to argue that we should allow more immigration.

So what should be done? Further research is needed on a subject of such critical national importance. The Duke study was a small step toward establishing certain baseline facts and reliable statistics. As Professor Ausubel notes, if a team of engineering students can accomplish so much within a semester, why not the experts and analysts?

The Duke study tried to differentiate between the skill and education level of engineers and suggested that those with higher-quality education would always stay in demand. Study contributor Dr. Richard Schroth of Katzenbach Partners, who coined the terms "dynamic engineers" and "transactional engineers," argues that this is the best way of understanding the outsourcing threat.


  Dynamic engineers are individuals 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 are typically responsible for rote and repetitive tasks in the workforce.

What differentiates the two types of engineers is their education. The capstone design course that dynamic engineers study in their senior year enables them to integrate knowledge gained from fundamental coursework in the applied sciences and engineering.

Contrary to the popular view that India and China have an abundance of engineers, recent studies 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.


  Dynamic engineers develop renewable energy sources, solutions for purifying water, sustaining the environment, providing low-cost health care, and vaccines for infectious diseases. They also manage projects and lead innovation. Talk to any CEO, CIO, or engineering manager, and they'll likely tell you that they're always looking for such people.

With all the problems that need solving in the world, we probably need many more dynamic engineers. India and China need them as badly as the U.S. does. But by simply focusing on the numbers and racing to graduate more, we're going to end up with more transactional engineers -- and their jobs will likely get outsourced.

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