Monday, January 09, 2006

There's an engineer shortage! No there's not! Yes there is!

The title above links to what appears to be an op-ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer written by the Dean of the Duke University Engineering school, Kristina Johnson. It's in response to recent news articles that purport to show that there's an engineer gap between the US and India and China -- that those other countries are graduating many more engineers than we do. Prof. Johnson is touting a study done by her school that argues against this. In a nutshell, it shows that, if type of degree and field of study are taken into account, the US graduates about as many engineers as those other countries. Daniel Drezner has commented on the Duke study already.

As can be expected, everyone uses the latest information in an attempt to support his point of view. Prof. Drezner concludes his comments, saying:
So, to conclude, offshore outsourcing will take place when the tasks can be segmented into discrete, simple and rote tasks, and does not pose a threat to engineers at the B.S. level or above.
This is based on surveys of how "capable of competing in the global outsourcing environment" Chinese and Indian engineers are. Right now. Perhaps not the best information to bet a career on, even assuming it were possible for a labor market study to accurately assess such competitiveness. Of course, if you're a big fan of outsourcing, like Prof. Drezner is, then you'll likely grasp at anything that will diffuse the fundamental illogic that exporting high-paying jobs overseas is actually good for American workers (as opposed to American corporations).

Dean Johnson, on the other hand, starts with her school's study that says that things are fine, as far as graduates right now, and goes on to assert that things will get worse in the future, unless:

If we don't act now and invest in engineering education, we will certainly lose the innovation edge we have enjoyed in this country. But I'd go further. I'd argue that it is our responsibility as good citizens of the planet to educate more engineers to help shoulder these coming challenges.

Is the sky falling? No, not yet. But if our most talented domestic students don't go into engineering, the rest of us will have to prop it up somehow.

I'm all in favor of investing in education, especially in math and science. This education is becoming essential for success in today's society and for full participation (or, at least, competent participation) in democracy. One example of this comes from survey results (PDF) entitled "How Americans view personal wealth vs. how financial planners view this wealth", from the Consumer Federation of America. Part of the survey says:
The surveys also found that more than one-fifth of Americans (21%) -- 38% of those with incomes below $25,000 -- think that winning the lottery represents the most practical way for them to accumulate several hundred thousand dollars.

But, I don't think that improving K-12 science and math education is going to "fix" any problem in engineering, because the problem isn't in the number of qualified students. As I've written before, there are plenty of good, qualified students; they're just not choosing engineering careers.

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1 comment:

  1. Right. I think students are just being reasonable. And before anyone starts panicking about this issue, they should seriously consider prozac.

    I wonder who stands to benefit from these claims of shortages? Follow the money...