Calls for technical competitiveness will fall on deaf ears iF they're not grounded in reality.
Kevin Brown, a Design News reader in Santa Clara, CA, recently sent us an e-mail pointing out the big "disconnect" between journal articles calling for the U.S. to educate more engineers while media reports are trumpeting technical jobs being sent to India.
"Consider how a youngster might think about it," Brown wrote. " 'Why should I blow four to eight years in college fighting for one of a steadily declining number of engineering jobs that are getting sent overseas anyway?'"
Well, Mr. Brown, that's a mighty good question.
For the past two years, I've been listening to experts describe the woeful state of science and math education in this country. I've seen the surveys showing that one-fifth of Americans believe the Sun revolves around the Earth and those revealing that only 13 percent of us know what a molecule is. I've seen dozens of studies projecting the number of engineering degrees in this country versus those in China and India over the next 20 years. And I believe — and agree with — the experts who tell me that we're in danger of losing our technological competitiveness.
But I still think Kevin Brown is right.
Americans are, if nothing else, pragmatic. They want to know if there's going to be job at the end of the engineering rainbow, and if they're going into a profession that's respected. And neither of those desires seem to be on very solid ground right now.
Let's be honest: Most people in this country don't know what engineers do. Many corporations are run by leaders who have a snooty disdain for so-called "techies." Our popular media is packed with angry Luddites who believe engineers do little else other than cause environmental problems. So, yes, we have a bit of an image problem.
Moreover, engineers' concerns about the offshoring of jobs appear to be well-founded. A recent article in The New York Times indicates that the phenomenon of offshoring is slowly moving up the skills' ladder. The article, based on a study published by professors at Georgia Tech and Emory University, suggests offshoring typically begins with simple assembly tasks, then moves through manufacturing and computer programming, and ultimately ends up in research and development labs. More than a third of the corporations surveyed for the study said they plan to "change substantially" the distribution of their research and development work in the next three years, the Times wrote. (For a brief presentation of the study's key points, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4927-548.) "The story comes through loud and clear," one of the study's authors told The New York Times. "You have to have an environment that fosters the development of a high-quality work force and productive collaboration between corporations and universities if America wants to maintain a competitive advantage in research and development."
So, yes, I agree with you, Mr. Brown. There's a disconnect.
If corporate and university leaders really want to change our woeful technical education situation, then they better start opening their eyes and addressing some key issues involving image and job treatment. And then they need to cough up some truthful studies about our corporate leaders, and how many of them are really planning to send their R&D forces to India.
The national effort to regain our technical superiority is essential, but it won't work if it's not grounded in reality.
Reach Senior Technical Editor Charles J. Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.