No contradiction in engineering gap data

Duke professor Vivek Wadhwa says How the World Works missed the point of his team's research

Published March 20, 2007 6:24PM (EDT)

Vivek Wadhwa responds to my post yesterday highlighting what appeared to me to be a glaring contradiction in how data about the relative number of engineers produced in China and the United States is being interpreted.

Andrew, the point that our new research made was that the problems aren't always where they seem. Political leaders still harp on the theme that India and China graduate 12 times as many engineers as we do, therefore we are in trouble. The remedies they prescribe are to increase graduation rates, fix the education system, increase the quotas for temporary workers via H1-B visas, etc.

I have argued that simply increasing graduation rates without understanding what needs to be fixed will harm the profession. There is no general shortage of engineers and flooding the market with more will cause salaries to drop and Americans to become even more discouraged with engineering.

We traveled to India and China to understand what was going on with outsourcing and where this trend was headed. We learnt that we were right about undergraduate engineers -- companies told us there was no shortage and that they really didn't care about degrees -- even bachelors degrees were optional. For the jobs that are currently being outsourced, they can train smart people with even bad education.

What caused the concern was when we asked multi-nationals what's next. Most of them said that they expected the trend to continue and that research and design would go offshore next. We asked what skills were needed. They said that for these research jobs higher education did count.

For research jobs, they preferred PhD's but could make do with Masters degree holders with sufficient experience.

So when we looked at the supply of graduate and post-graduate degrees, we saw a real problem. Whereas 92% of undergraduate students were American born, this wasn't so with graduate and post-graduate.

What's more, the trend was alarming. U.S. PhD's were increasingly going to foreigners, and China's PhD production increased by a factor of 5 over a decade. Most of China's graduates aren't leaving China and an increasing number of Chinese students in the U.S. are returning home.

My recommendations are that we make it worthwhile for Americans to complete graduate and post-graduate degrees -- these are not cost justified right now. This is not a matter of discouraging students by creating a fear of jobs being outsourced -- as was the case with undergraduate degrees -- here it's all about economics.

Students can't often make up for the massive investment they have to make in higher science and engineering degrees. We should make graduate education close to free like it is in China, provide market level salaries to PhD researchers, and focus on creating the exciting research jobs that make all this worthwhile.

Instead of spending the next $100 billion on war, let's spend it on the next Sputnik like program to develop alternative sources of energy, protect the environment, cure disease, etc. Scientists and engineers can create many solutions that do good for the world.

China is doing this -- they are investing heavily in such research and they treat scientists like national heros. We offer them substandard salaries and show more respect to investment bankers than scientists.

The point, again is to focus on the real problems -- not imaginary ones like undergraduate graduation rates. Please read the entire article in its context and understand the big picture rather than focusing on one headline as you have done.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works India