The 'No-Glory’ Profession

November 20, 2006

Amid a firestorm of controversy over the future of American science education, working engineers have been weighing in with opinions that have been largely ignored.

Before we tell you about the response of engineers, however, let's first recap the controversy: It started two years ago, when American universities and professional organizations began comparing the U.S. to China and India. Those two Asian countries, they claimed, were collectively churning out a million engineers per year, while the U.S. was graduating a paltry 70,000 (see "America's High-Tech Quandary," DN 12.05.05). Then Duke University researchers weighed in with a dramatically different set of numbers (see a recap of Duke's results).

In essence, the debate revolved around two basic issues: First, whether computer science majors should be counted as engineers and, second, whether India and China were counting three-year techs as engineers.

Depending on how engineering grads were counted, the U.S. could be woefully behind or slightly ahead of India and China.

Even today, experts still aren't sure what to believe. "How many engineers are there in India and China?" asks Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. "That's a very good question and I'd love to know the answer."

While the confusion has continued, the U.S. Congress has begun work on a bill that would appropriate millions - perhaps even billions - of dollars to an effort to create more science and engineering graduates in this country. The bill was created in response to the U.S. Department of Defense's fear that it won't have the engineering talent needed for high-end research and development as an aging engineering workforce moves to retirement.

In the midst of all this debating and political posturing, however, engineers have been quietly telling us there's a good reason why smart high school kids in this country aren't always gravitating toward engineering. The reason, they say, has to do with professional rewards.

Consider this reader response on a Business Week website: "Business grads (the ones who can't hack the math and science for engineering degrees) end up with all the glory, bonuses, promotions, big-window offices, golf trips, etc. I am an electrical engineer like my father, but both us were pushed to the back rooms of the company over the years. I sit next to a fellow engineer who has been here 18 years. Both of us discuss how our careers went nowhere while the 'executive staffers' reap all the company rewards." (See the Business Week reference).

Sour grapes? Maybe so, but judging by the responses we've received to articles on this subject, that complaint is an all-too-familiar one. (See Design News reader comments).

It seems the problem has been recognized more readily by teenagers than by those of us in the media and in professional organizations. Many smart high school kids intuitively know an engineering education is a lot of hard work for little "glory." As a result, many are opting for other fields.

If high school students can figure this out, then American corporations and government leaders ought to be able to understand it, too. And they should be able to come up with some practical solutions.

If they really want answers, they can start by defining the problem. And the problem isn't in India or China. It's right in front of us. Just ask the working engineers.

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