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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9
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The Terrible Two’s
By Vivek Wadhwa

China and India may be graduating fewer engineers than we’ve been led to believe.

University deans, business executives and political leaders seem to agree that we risk losing our competitive edge to India and China. These countries reportedly graduate 12 times the number of engineers the United States does. So we must increase spending on education and research and double the number of engineering graduates to keep pace.

There would be reason to worry if there was indeed a looming shortage of engineers and if the numbers in this debate were accurate. A team of student researchers at Duke University has determined that some of the most cited statistics on engineering graduates are inaccurate.

Having founded two tech companies, I’ve long been at the center of the outsourcing debate and thought I understood the issues. But after joining Duke University as an executive in residence, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t answer basic questions from my engineering students. What courses would lead to the best job prospects and what jobs were “outsourcing proof?”

I knew that with a master’s of engineering management degree from Duke, these students were destined to be leaders. As Pratt School Dean Kristina Johnson says, “Leadership can’t be outsourced.” Yet no one could answer these critical questions. At Johnson’s suggestion, we decided to research the topic. We picked a team of our brightest students and set out to compare international engineering degrees and analyze employment opportunities.

First, we wanted to get a handle on the facts. The most commonly cited numbers for annual engineering graduation are 600,000 from institutions of higher education in China, 350,000 from India and 70,000 from the United States. We simply couldn’t find the basis for these. It seems that the first reference to these numbers was by an American technology executive in Taiwan in 2002. The same numbers have been used repeatedly ever since with sources citing each other.

Our team determined that in an apples-to-apples comparison, the United States graduated 222,335 engineers versus 215,000 from India in 2004. The closest comparable number reported by China is 644,106, but this includes additional majors. Looking strictly at four-year degrees, the United States graduated 137,437 engineers versus 112,000 from India. China reported 351,537 under a broader category. All of these numbers include information technology and related majors and don’t account for major differences in education quality.

Our report received widespread media coverage and has gained the attention of political leaders. It has caused the National Academies to issue a small revision to a report they recently published on U.S competitiveness. The question one could ask is why it took a team of students to shed such light on this critical issue.

This semester, we’re continuing our effort to determine what types of engineering jobs have already been outsourced, what companies expect to outsource and what skills business executives believe will give this country an advantage. There are also other issues that need to be looked at. An increasing number of engineering graduates are entering fields other than engineering. At Duke, 30 percent of our engineering management students indicate they want jobs in investment banking. This is not surprising as engineering salaries have not increased significantly over the past two decades. Women constitute only 20 percent of engineering graduates while we’re becoming increasingly dependent on foreign students to fill our engineering schools. Why not encourage more women to enter engineering?
Let’s fully understand the problems before rushing to fix them.

 

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