ASEE Prism Online = April 2002
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Last Word

Tapping Into a Larger Talent Pool

- By Representative Vernon Ehlers

When future historians look back on the late 20th century, they will undoubtedly recognize it as the era when high technology became a dominant force in our economy and became an inseparable part of our daily lives. Today's policy-makers have begun to realize that in order to prosper in this new era, we must have a suitably educated and trained workforce. To meet our immediate needs, Congress increased the annual allotment of H-1B visas, which allow foreign professionals to temporarily work in this country, from 65,000 in 1998 to 195,000 during 2001-2003. Yet an economy reliant on imported high-tech expertise is obviously not sustainable in the long term. We must better prepare American students for science-based and high-technology jobs—and prepare more of them.

The urgency of this problem is borne out by statistics and is particularly acute in the field of engineering. According to Department of Education data, just 5.1 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in 1998 were in engineering, down from a high of 7.7 percent in 1986. Furthermore, while the total number of bachelor's degrees granted annually has steadily risen, the number of engineering bachelor's degrees has dropped from a peak of 76,225 in 1986 to 59,910 in 1998.

The lack of gender and racial diversity among engineering undergraduates is a growing concern, but also suggests a way of addressing the overall shortfall. In fact, the active recruitment of women and minorities, who have traditionally been poorly represented in engineering schools, would do much to bolster engineering enrollments. Congress addressed the issue in 1998, establishing the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET). Gender and racial diversity are typically treated together, but a closer look at the numbers paints a more complex picture. Let's look at the underrepresentation of minorities in engineering in the context of minority underrepresentation in all fields of higher education. Census data for 2000 show that blacks comprise 14.4 percent of the young adult (20-29) population, while Hispanics account for 15.2 percent. But in 1998, blacks earned 8.3 percent of bachelor's degrees (in all fields) and Hispanics earned just 5.6 percent. These statistics point out that the college attendance rates of blacks and Hispanics are well below average. But once in college, 3.1 percent of black students pursue engineering, compared with 4.9 percent of Hispanic students and 5.1 percent of the overall student population. In other words, blacks earn engineering degrees at about three-fifths the average rate, while Hispanic students obtain engineering degrees near the average rate. Therefore, although more black undergraduates could be attracted to engineering, simply increasing college attendance by minorities is a powerful way of producing more minority engineers.

When gender is considered, the problem is not enrollment, but attraction to an engineering major. In 1998, women earned 56 percent of all bachelor's degrees but just 18 percent of engineering degrees. Remarkably, only 1.7 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded to women were in engineering. Women earn engineering degrees at only one third the average rate and at just over half the rate of black students. Comparisons with other countries refute the notion that the poor representation of women in U.S. engineering programs is simply due to an innate disinclination of women to pursue engineering. In 1997, the number of engineering degrees as a percentage of all bachelor's degrees (or the equivalent) granted to women was 8.2 percent in Mexico, 7.0 percent in South Korea, 4.6 percent in Japan, 4.3 percent in Germany, and 2.3 percent in Canada.

Given these findings, there are steps that the federal government can take to address the lack of racial and gender diversity in engineering. Eliminating racial inequity in the public school system and guaranteeing that all K-12 children have access to schooling that prepares them for college should increase the numbers of minority students in higher education (and in turn, engineering departments). Specific to engineering and science education, the CAWMSET report recommended, for example, intervention efforts targeted at underrepresented groups at the high school and community college levels. These would aim to identify potentially able students and prepare them for engineering and science programs at four-year colleges and universities.

A negative perception about the field and little encouragement to pursue technical careers appear to keep many talented young women from considering engineering. We must find innovative ways to improve their impression of engineering careers during high school and provide them with positive role models. Increasing diversity also may require structural changes in college engineering programs. For example, the lack of female faculty has long been identified as a contributing factor to the decisions of women not to pursue engineering.

Diversity is essential in engineering, beyond simply addressing the human capital needs of the tech-driven economy. William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, has remarked that engineering is fundamentally a creative process, and like any creative process, benefits when its practitioners can call on a spectrum of backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences. Viewed in this light, diversity is essential in order to maximize our national capacity for continued innovation and progress.


Congressman Vernon Ehlers, (R-MI), a Ph.D. physicist, is the chairman of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards.