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Lack of Engineering Graduates?

March 30, 2008

Filed under: education — Terry Wohlers @ 17:23

A lot has been published over the past couple years on the suspected lack of engineering graduates in the U.S. Some articles suggest that countries, such as China, are producing many more engineers than the U.S. In determining whether it’s true, one must know how these countries define an “engineer.” Some information hints at the possibility that an individual in China trained to run a CNC milling machine is considered an engineer. Countries, such as the U.S., would count only those with a four-year engineering degree an engineer.

Leland Teschler, editor of Machine Design, said, “There is no shortage of scientists or engineers. In fact, there are ‘substantially more’ scientists and engineers graduating in the U.S. than there are jobs.” His comments were published in the December 13, 2007 edition of the magazine. He went on to say that kids graduating from U.S. high schools do not lag far behind in science and math, compared to economically competitive countries. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Rand Corp., Harvard University, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Stanford University have all come to the same conclusion, according to Teschler.

Clearly, there is interest in increasing the number of engineers in the U.S. I’m in full support of strong engineering education and producing many good engineers across the country. Yet, the best way to increase the supply of engineers is to boost the demand for them. However, as more and more product development and engineering is outsourced to India and other countries, it becomes increasingly difficult to grow demand within U.S. borders. And, I don’t see this trend disappearing any time soon.

5 Comments

  1. Because engineering is so elemental to civilization, there will always be a demand because they actually create the systems and processes which the now-dominant service industry jobs rely on. Engineering and mechanical know-how is like pitching in baseball….you can never have too much!

    And if Mr. Teschler is right when saying, “There is no shortage of scientists or engineers”, then why is it that we have to import countless computer programmers into the U.S. (The smell of curry is reputed to be the signature odor of Silicon Valley) and outsource so many tech jobs to foreign workers?

    Admittedly, there’s obviously a lot more to innovation than just dry engineering, just as there’s a lot more to literature than good grammar and a large vocabulary. But the notion that there’s no shortage of engineers is, in my opinion, both untrue in this context (there IS a shortage) and it shows a misunderstanding of the significance of science and engineering to civilization.

    Comment by David_Brennan — March 30, 2008 @ 18:51

  2. I question whether there’s a shortage of engineers. When I was an engineering undergraduate way back when Reagan walked the earth (c.1985), we heard all sorts of talk about the shortage of US science and engineering grads, but somehow this never translated into multiple offers and guaranteed jobs upon graduation. Funny that.

    I also question the ‘need’ to import computer programmers from overseas. There are plenty of available domestic developers out there; the problem is that they expect salary, benefits, and sane, stable management commensurate with their skills. Employers simply don’t want to offer that; they’d rather import cheap labor on an H1-B visa. After they’ve milked the guy for a while and he gets wise that he’s being paid far less than his peers, the employer pulls the trump card — at-will employment means they can dump the guy and have him deported. Voila’! Problem solved, nobody gets sued, and the company saves a buttload of money. Heck, they don’t actually have to let the guy go, they just have to threaten to. Great for the moneyed few, crappy for employees and for society. The American Enterprise Institute and other right-wing think tanks will puff about how overall this is more efficient for business and therefore better for society, but they refuse to acknowledge the pernicious “soft” cost of rewarding firms for treating their employees like Kleenex — use them and toss them.

    Increasing the domestic demand for engineers as well as improving the work environment, respect, and compensation would do wonders for perking up the supply of domestic engineers. However, as long as the trade landscape and Wall Street attitudes reward firms which offshore high-skill professional labor such as engineering, it’s not gonna happen.

    Rein in CEO compensation, reduce the cost of health care, and — I hate to say it — make offshoring less attractive and maybe you’ll see some positive change. I’m not holding my breath.

    Comment by apthorpe — April 1, 2008 @ 23:14

  3. Apthorpe,

    I won’t seek out hard, objective data about the engineering situation, but I’ll return your anecdotal evidence with one of my own: one of my childhood friends graduated from University of Michigan with a degree in chemical engineering in ’03. This guy was BESIEGED with employment offers (unfortunately, like many young American males, he instead elected to live in his parents’ basement so he could smoke weed and play video games all day).

    When you think about it, the H-1B visa situation is basically indentured servitude: they’re locked into a working situation with no freedom to leave. (Well, you have the “choice” to travel back to the other side of the planet and live in a third-world country, but that’s not exactly what Americans mean when we say “freedom”.) Having said that….I still strongly suspect that there is, indeed, a shortage of engineers. The fact that they’re exploiting H-1B visa workers doesn’t necessarily disprove that. (And, how do they quantify “enough” engineers?)

    I also agree that it’s flagrantly bogus for AEI, Cato, and the rest of the corporate-funded PR agencies to claim that this indentured servitude is good for business. It seems to me that having an “open marketplace” for the workers — which is what they champion in every other situation — would be the best for businesses, workers, and civilization as a whole.

    In my opinion, though, the situation transcends whether college engineering departments are meeting their quotas and how many H-1B visas are allocated each year. Instead, the problem is the fundamental lack of true innovation in the West (not trivialities like the latest cell phone or GPS device) and, moreover, the lack of even CARING about it. It’s as if we’ve reached some sort of entropy; we’ve little excitement for innovation, exploration, or progression. (The federal government and their activities seem to have filled in the gap left over empty by this social trend, as they’ve become our father figure, it seems.)

    Comment by David_Brennan — April 2, 2008 @ 12:21

  4. I have seen an increase over the past 2 years of recruiters contacting me to come back to work for an employer as an engineer. What I am seeing is that while the numbers of engineers graduating have increased, it is which fields they are going into that’s interesting. The numbers going into the material sciences and manufacturing areas seems to be very low (according to these recruiters), while at the same time the employers are becoming more specialized in their needs. It seems like a lot of engineers are in software, IT and CAD and of course environmental engineering.

    I went to a Society of Women engineering meeting a few years ago and it seemed like 2/3 of that group was in the environmental area. Right now, if you have an ME degree with decent computer skills and some experience in plant processing, you can pretty much go anywhere for a very nice salary. I have a chemical engineering degree with a biology background and I have been surprised at the opportunities that exist for me right now. This is probably the best that I have seen for hands-on-engineers in the last 20 years. I am hopeful that this means that production is being moved back to the US.

    Comment by Alair Emory — June 18, 2008 @ 11:27

  5. Thanks for sharing. I really appreciate it that you shared with us such an informative post.

    Comment by walikchris — July 7, 2010 @ 23:36