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
To meet our workforce needs, the United States has come to rely heavily on foreign-born engineers. In 1995, more than 65,000 engineers immigrated to this country. That's as many engineers as U.S. universities produced that year. Foreign-born engineers comprised more than 40 percent of graduate school enrollment in engineering, received almost half of all doctorates awarded, and held more than 60 percent of the postdoctoral R&D positions in 1995. Forty percent of the doctoral engineers that reside in the United States are foreign born, as are 30 percent of the engineering faculty at U.S. universities.

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
Recent changes in the increasingly global labor market suggest that the United States is, in many ways, becoming more vulnerable and less favorably positioned to attract well-trained engineering talent. Competitor nations are expanding their R&D investments relative to gross national product, at a time when we are increasingly contracting out or decreasing ours. State-of-the-art R&D laboratories that rival the best U.S. labs are being constructed at university, government, and industrial facilities overseas, attracting graduates who, in the past, would have been more inclined to remain here after their education. Some foreign governments are establishing financial incentives for top expatriate scientists and engineers to return to their homeland. Clearly, over-relying on foreign born engineers, while neglecting the development of intellectual talent from segments of our own population, is very risky. It's also unnecessary.

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.

Data Sources
Council on Competitiveness, Challenges, Washington, D.C., June/July 1997.

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

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