ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
The more things change...

As I read Linda Creighton's article "The Lure of Private Industry" (November, p. 37), it occurred to me how little has apparently changed. When I left academia more than a decade ago, deans and department heads were saying that it was extremely difficult to attract and retain engineering faculty members. In fact, I recall that it was an issue throughout my undergraduate and graduate days as well (most often in the context of budget hearings with administrators and regents). The contention then was that the perceived compensation disparity with industry was the primary culprit.

Apparently, compensation remains an issue today. Rather than simply throwing money at the problem, I would challenge all of us to take a step back and use our engineering training to deal with the recruitment and retention issue. As many practicing engineers have experienced, solving a problem by spending more money is a simplistic and expensive "solution" that often does little to address the underlying root causes. More economical and sustainable solutions can usually be found.

For example, one could ask do we really have a recruitment and retention problem? The data indicates that we are producing more Ph.D.'s than ever. Moreover, I am told that there can be 20, 50, or even 100 applicants for an engineering faculty opening. Given the seemingly adequate supply relative to the number of openings, the engineering administrators sound rather similar to the industrial proponents of H-1B visas. How can there be a shortage with so many people applying for a single opening? If an institution is unable to attract its top pick, does that constitute a shortage?

Assuming we do have a recruitment and retention issue in academia, are we sure that inadequate compensation is the root cause? In many cases, compensation is only one factor among many. As a group, the current Generation Xers have different values and priorities than the baby boomers. Job and life satisfaction are larger issues than just money. People will go to the company or university that best meets their social, psychological, and emotional needs as well as their financial needs. Each institution and academic unit must consider whether its culture enhances or detracts from their desirability.

The issues surrounding recruitment and retention seem to be based largely on personal anecdotes rather than on solid data. This makes it very difficult to accurately define the problem, identify key root causes, and implement improvement plans. If we are serious about solving the problem, we need to use a different strategy than the ones we have employed in the past. Status quo thinking is inadequate—a fresh perspective and the courage to follow the data wherever it leads is what is needed.

    Randy Yoshisato
    The Dow Chemical Company

Linda Creighton responds:

    On a purely numerical basic, there are more Ph.D. graduates who want to teach than there are positions available. However, engineering colleges are looking for grads with very specific research interests and backgrounds, and even with 100 or more applicants, there may not be a single candidate who meets the college's requirements. All schools are looking for the very best grads according to their own specific requirements. They also want grads from the top programs, and many of those people are going into industry.

Send your comments to  Because of space limitations, not all comments can be published, and those that are may be abridged.