In technical and academic circles, the word is usually spoken in a whisper:a million. China is headed toward a million engineers a year, the experts say. The number is so big, so far from our own experience, that reasonable people hesitate to say it too loudly for fear they'll be accused of exaggeration. But the truth is, China's closing in on the figure now and may have already reached a million.
Then they add the kicker: Yes, China's heading toward a million . . . and India isn't far behind. Usually, they say it with a shrug, a plaintive look, as if to add, what can we do?
Indeed, what can we do? With China's educational system cranking out engineers like toy soldiers, with India simultaneously graduating some 350,000 engineers a year, and with the U.S. at just a small fraction of that—75,000 is the best guess—questions about America's future competitiveness are inevitable.
Increasingly, those questions are being asked by some of this country's most knowledgeable leaders: University deans; chief executives; military officials. They're worried, they say, because the United States is a country of lawyers and business executives, not engineers. So where will our competitiveness come from? How will we out-innovate countries that are graduating five, ten, maybe 15 times as many engineers as we are?
"It's going to put us at a significant disadvantage over the next few decades," notes Geoffrey C. Orsak, dean of the School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University (SMU). "Imagine if the next Microsoft is founded in China, rather than in the U.S. Ninety-five percent of the desktop computing would be controlled by people who might not be our allies."
Moreover, there's a smorgasbord of technical arenas from which foreign competitors could emerge superior: automotive; energy; medical; defense; software; consumer electronics; factory automation; genetic engineering. What happens if China develops a reliable 70-mile-per-gallon car? What if India finds a cure for the most virulent forms of cancer? What happens if any foreign competitor develops a $50 desktop computer, or makes any kind of comparable breakthrough, simply because the United States no longer has the technical sophistication to get there first?
The damage could be far greater than a simple trade imbalance, experts say. "We already have a trade deficit of enormous proportions, but it has always been counter-balanced by our 'creativity quotient,' which supplies a massive amount of intellectual property into the world economy," notes Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing and academic relations for Texas-based National Instruments. "But if we don't watch out, we're going to see those innovation numbers start to drop."
To be sure, some argue that the numbers don't matter. It's the quality of the engineering, the innovation, the breakthroughs, that really count, they say. But those who have visited China's best universities, and those who have taught students from Indian schools, believe otherwise.
"I had students from India Institute of Technology when I was teaching at Rice University," notes Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). "They were some of the best students I ever taught."
"Numbers aren't everything," adds Orsak of SMU. "But it's a lot easier to find a diamond when you're searching through ten times as much material."
China's Resolve Strengthens
The situation has been brewing for more than a decade, say academics. During that time, China's leaders have repeatedly expressed a desire to emphasize engineering in their universities. Today, with all nine of the country's Politburo Standing Committee—the top tier of the Communist party—being engineers, the vision has become more focused than ever. Chinese officials reportedly are aiming for 50 percent of the country's college graduates to come from engineering. Today, the figure hovers between 35 to 45 percent, according to the best estimates. The result is that China is by most accounts producing more than 500,000 engineers per year and, according to the ASEE, its total figure may have already reached a million per year.
"One reason there are so many engineers in China is that if you want to be, say, an art history major there, you've got about one chance in a million of getting into a university," says Huband of ASEE. "But if you want to be an engineer, you're guaranteed a slot in some universities."
Some contend that China's national will in this matter is similar to the one it applied to sports more than two decades ago. Back then, China's desire for a powerhouse basketball program resulted in a "genetic conspiracy" that culminated in the birth of an 11-pound, 23-inch boy named Yao Ming, says a new book titled Operation Yao Ming. Yao, whose father was 6'-10" and whose mother stood 6'-2", was quickly funneled into the Communist sports machine. He grew to the extraordinary height of 7'-5" and became a national icon.
Today, China is said to be applying a similar form of national will to engineering. And, as it did 20 years ago, its desire for success is trickling down from the top. Heads of state are applying their engineering knowledge to a desire for the country's biggest companies to "get more than mere pennies on the dollar" for the products created there. By developing intellectual property, instead of merely specializing in knock-offs of existing designs, Chinese officials hope to grab a bigger share of every economic pie, much as Microsoft does in the U.S.
Indeed, in his popular new book, The World Is Flat, author Thomas L. Friedman describes the frantic clamoring of Chinese Ph.D. students attempting to work their way into Microsoft Research Asia. Microsoft's standing in the country is so exalted, Friedman notes, that China has given the software giant the right to grant post-doctoral degrees to employees. Young people in the country "hang from the rafters and scalp tickets" to hear Bill Gates speak, Friedman writes. "They are racing us to the top," he writes. "They do not want to work for us; they don't even want to be us. They want to dominate us . . ."
. . . As U.S. Focus on Engineering Fades
The United States hasn't aimed a similar "national will" at the engineering community since October 4, 1957. Back then, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit around the earth, causing U.S. politicians to sense the eerie emanations of a military crisis. House Speaker John McCormack, who also happened to head the House Select Committee on Astronautics, proclaimed that the U.S. faced the prospect of "national extinction."
"It cannot be overemphasized that the survival of the free world—indeed, all the world—is caught up in the stakes," McCormack announced.
Many in Congress believed that Sputnik provided the Soviet Union with a military space platform, from which cosmonauts could fling down nuclear weapons at will, like college students lobbing water balloons from a dormatory window.
Absurd as that now sounds, it served as a call to arms in 1957. In government, as well as in corporate and educational circles, the anxious call went out for more engineers. In slightly more than a decade's time, the pipeline filled and the United States landed on the moon.
"The psychology of the times was one of imminent annihilation," notes Sherra Kerns, vice president of innovation and research at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. "People were building bomb shelters. There was a tight association between technological supremacy and survival. Being a member of that generation, I remember having a sense of responsibility to learn science."
The same cannot be said today. No longer is there a sense of national responsibility associated with engineering, and the glamour of the moon shots has long since passed. Interest in engineering among American students is dwindling, particularly at the Ph.D. level, where 51 percent of the students are now foreign-born. Moreover, applications to U.S. engineering schools are down 60 percent from China and 40 percent from India during the last two years, suggesting that our foreign spigot may be running dry.
For many, the most frustrating part of the entire phenomenon is engineering's lack of appeal among American-born students. A combination of factors—salaries and public image, as well as offshoring of jobs to Asia—has made engineering appear undesirable to high school kids who might otherwise choose it as a career path. Add to that the fact that it's generally recognized as the toughest undergraduate curriculum in American education, and that many of its students increasingly see their college experience as an extraordinary grind, and the result is that worst of all cultural images: uncoolness.
"If you go back to the 1950s, when General Motors was the symbol of American culture—engineering was sort of a glamorous profession," says Peter Whalley, a professor of sociology at Loyola University who specializes in the study of engineering and technical cultures. "But with the decline of manufacturing, it's not surprising there would be a decline in the number of engineering students here."
Many believe that the roots of the problem lie, not with the students, but with parents, teachers and counselors. According to statistics from Trilogy Publications LLC (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), 60 percent of adults in the United States say they aren't sure what engineers do, which bodes poorly for children who might otherwise consider technical career paths.
"It's not necessarily the kids," notes Ray Stata, chairman of the board of Analog Devices Inc. "It's the parents, educators, and guidance counselors."
Stata recalls trying to chart the course of his own children's education from prestigious Massachusetts high schools to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), only to find that the prestigious high schools didn't direct their best students toward MIT. "The guidance counselors in those schools very, very heavily advocated the Ivies over MIT," he recalls. "And so it is also in the public school systems. Guidance counselors don't have a clue to what careers are like in tech fields, and the teachers don't either."
Worse, at a 25th graduation anniversary of his alma mater, MIT, Stata saw a questionnaire asking if attendees would encourage their own sons and daughters to go to MIT. The predominant answer was no, he says.
"The reason came back to the fact that when families become more affluent, they don't see engineering as an appealing career opportunity for their children," Stata says.
Priming the Pump
In the U.S., however, such dilemmas can't be solved by national edict.
"It's very cultural," says Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics, astronautics, and engineering systems at MIT. "In China, the very top students are encouraged to go into engineering and sciences, whereas our top students here are encouraged to do a lot of things that run the gamut from medicine to law to social sciences. It's an issue of cultural expectations, prestige, and pride associated with an engineering degree."
The problem, as many see it, is that engineering and other technical professions have lost their luster. Hence, the solution: Regain the prestige, bit by bit, even if it means aiming the effort at the broadest, and youngest, possible audience.
The U.S. Air Force, for example, recently funded a class in movie scriptwriting for engineers and scientists at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, with the underlying idea being that Hollywood needs to show engineers in a more positive light. Attendees had no prior movie experience. But the people behind the idea—University of Southern California electrical engineering professor, Martin Gundersen, and U.S. Air Force program manager and IEEE Fellow, Robert Barker—feel that popular culture is lacking not only in positive scientist portrayals but also in technical accuracy. Movies such as Falling Down, Mosquito Coast, and even last year's The Aviator, feed the popular perception of engineers as eccentric at best and anti-social at worst, they say.
"Our thinking was that people, especially kids, are influenced by television and film," says Gundersen of USC.
Indeed, Air Force officials especially hope to reach the young, American-born students most likely to be influenced by popular culture. "Some of the commercial science and engineering companies have no difficulty outsourcing work to other countries, or hiring immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to do their work," says Barker. "But in the defense industry, our projects are sensitive. There are citizenship requirements for the people who work in our laboratories."
Such efforts aimed at changing public image, however, are few. Some states—particularly Texas and Massachusetts—have taken a different tack, directing funds at the problem. The Texas Engineering and Technical Consortium (TETC), for example, has formed partnerships between industry and academia as a way of creating grants that increase the number of electrical engineering and computer science graduates in that state. Similarly, a program called Engineering in Massachusetts Collaborative provides high school students with college scholarships and arranges summer internships at high-tech companies in that state.
Still, such efforts represent isolated, rather than collective, attempts to solve the problem. Most experts now agree that for the U.S. to re-fill the engineering pipeline, the country needs a big project, like the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury space efforts of the 1960s. And that, of course, requires a national program at a time when the country is dealing with a war and an extraordinarily costly bail-out of hurricane-ravaged regions of the country. Moreover, delivering such a message to a 535-member U.S. Congress that has, at best estimate, just six engineers, is difficult.
"It all goes back to the ability to communicate with the President, Congress, and with policymakers in Washington," notes Newman of MIT, who also serves as the director of the Technology and Policy Program at the school. "It's incumbent on us as engineers to communicate with them, but the problem is that there are very few technically-trained representatives in Washington."
Newman suggests that a national initiative to explore "earth, space, or sea" could serve as a rallying point, drawing bright students into the sciences and engineering, much as the space program did in the 1960s. "I don't know anyone, adult or child, who doesn't get excited about space exploration," she says.
"If we had a national initiative in certain areas, such as energy, we could prime the pump again," notes Jerome Rivard, president of Global Technology and Business Development and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Engineering as a Springboard
Even skeptics suggest that such programs would be critical, especially in light of surveys done by McKinsey Global Institute that indicate 52 percent of engineering jobs could one day be amenable to offshoring. One of the greatest fears, they say, is that schools will flood the engineering curriculums with students who cannot find jobs when they graduate.
"If you encourage people to go into it, you need to make sure there are jobs at the other end," notes William Butz, who two years ago authored studies on the subject for The Rand Corp., a non-profit think tank that addresses private and public issues.
Butz cautions that there have been four such "crises" since the 1950s, and all four were not only not crises, but were not even problems. "If the government encourages kids—either directly or indirectly—to go into mechanical, electrical or aeronautical engineering, and then changes its mind down the road, then you're going to have an eventual glut of people coming out of engineering schools with Ph.D.'s," Butz adds.
Butz warns, however, that there's simply not enough data to objectively suggest that there is, or isn't, going to be a problem here after a decade of engineering production in China and India. "We have no way of knowing because all the data is too old," he says.
For that reason, many in the technical community suggest that engineering degrees be viewed as a starting point, rather than an end. Like social science degrees, they say, engineering can be a springboard to other jobs and professions.
"You can take that degree into politics, law, or consulting, and it gives you a wonderful start," says Almgren of National Instruments. "It would be shortsighted to discourage a child from going into engineering. I can't imagine a grad school or company that wouldn't want them if they were talented."
The key, experts say, is for the engineering community to bring the problem to the public. Since most adults in the U.S. don't even know what engineers do, they're unlikely to see the disparity in numbers between the U.S. and Asia as a problem. Most, including legislators, simply believe that America will find a way.
"Our Congress has no idea that this issue exists," says Rivard of Global Technology and Business Development. "And they're not going to know until we tell them, or until our standard of living starts to drop."
"People say, 'America always finds a way,'" Rivard adds. "But that ability to 'find a way' is always going to depend on engineering."
Contact author Charles Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|U.S. Coming Up Short on Engineering Degrees
|Reliable statistics are few, but numbers published by the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicate that engineering students are a small minority in U.S. colleges. In 2000, NSF figures showed that just 4.7 percent of U.S. undergrad degrees went to engineers, while 38.7 percent of the undergrad degrees in China were awarded to engineering students.
First university degrees
Get a synopsis of the U.S.'s "quiet crisis," written by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson.
See how Texas is solving the problem.
See Rand Corp.'s contrary view of the problem from 2003.