In the mid-1980s more than 8 percent of the bachelor of science degrees awarded in the United States were in engineering. Today that figure has dropped to slightly more than 5 percent. For minority students the proportion of B.S. degrees in engineering dropped from a peak of 4.7 percent in 1989 to 3.6 percent in 1995.
While engineering enrollment lags—particularly among African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians—the demand for engineers and other technically trained people is growing explosively. During the past four years, the number of U.S. engineering jobs increased almost 20 percent, from 1,717,000 to 2,051,000 jobs. The 1997 unemployment rate for engineers stood at a near-record low of 1.5 percent, less than a third of the overall unemployment rate for the workforce as a whole (4.9 percent). According to a recent survey by the Information Technology Association of America, almost 200,000 U.S. jobs in computer and information technology remain unfilled. The average starting salary for 1997 engineering baccalaureate graduates approached $40,000, which was on par with starting salaries for 1997 law school graduates, 40 percent higher than that for business administration graduates, and 75 percent higher than that for liberal arts graduates.
Reliance on Immigrant Engineers
The last thing I want to do is to promote xenophobia or immigration curbs; however, it's essential that we understand the dynamics of our technical workforce. The 1973 oil crisis demonstrated what can happen when we depend too heavily on foreign sources for critical commodities. In today's world, human capital is our most valuable resource.
New Workforce Dynamics
Once topping the charts in labor costs for engineers and scientists, the United States now finds itself positioned very competitively (see the comparative chart below). This should reduce one of the incentives that led U.S. companies to export an increasing number of R&D jobs in recent years. However, if we do not produce the necessary workforce to meet industry's growing demand, soon U.S. companies will be compelled to export more R&D jobs and to pay higher labor costs for doing so.
George Campbell, Jr., is president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). This article is adapted from Engineering and Affirmative Action: Crisis in the Making, a special edition of the NACME Research Letter, Copyright © 1997. It is printed with permission from NACME.
Engineering Workforce Commission, time series databases on engineering enrollments and graduation collected under a NACME grant.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov