December 09, 2013
NSPE TODAY: OUTLOOK
BY PRESIDENT DAN WITTLIFF, P.E., F.NSPE
As practicing engineers, we need to aggressively engage with educators at all levels to identify and encourage able students to pursue an engineering education and an engineering career. In addition, we need to develop internships to train these students in the practice of engineering and volunteer as mentors or coaches to help engineering students deal with their challenges and stay the course in their engineering education to graduation and beyond. All this is more than just a "feel good" activity—the future of the engineering profession and our nation depend on it. Here's why:
The United States needs to add about a quarter million new engineers per year to meet the country's need for engineers and we produce less than half of that number from native-born U.S. citizens.
Here are some key facts about the engineering "pipeline" in the U.S., according to Census Bureau and Engineering Workforce data.
Not being able to produce enough engineers to meet our country's needs has enormous consequences for the U.S.
First, in the export of jobs overseas, engineering follows manufacturing. Some countries, such as China, insist on technology transfer in exchange for access to foreign markets. However, the bottom-line reason for making the move is that a U.S. company can hire four or five foreign engineers for every one engineer hired in the U.S.
Second, a big impact is felt on U.S. technical education. In 1977, 56% of U.S. doctorates went to U.S. citizens, but 30 years later that percentage had dropped to only 29%, despite our best national efforts to grow our own engineers as part of STEM initiatives.
Industrial capacity is also undermined. According to economic experts, offshoring manufacturing capacity comes at the expense of rather than in addition to U.S. capacity—it is a zero-sum game. Offshoring causes U.S. leaders to neglect infrastructure at home and eventually lose capabilities altogether. Leonard Lynn, professor of management policy at Case Western University observed: "European and Japanese engineers tend to have more job protection than American engineers, and U.S. corporations are believed to be in the forefront of offshoring. If you neglect the infrastructure back home, you lose capabilities. If you don't have managers who worked their way through the entire system, then offshore engineers will have to take over those roles."
Finally, the reverse "brain drain" refers to the phenomenon already touched on: Much of the science and engineering talent that came to the U.S. with the growth of high-tech industries in the last half of the last century is now leaving the country. In 2003, 3.25 million people with S&E degrees in the U.S. were immigrants. That number grew to 4.2 million in 2010, according to Census data.
Although 64% of S&E immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens (compared to 40% of immigrants overall), many of these S&E immigrants are considering returning to their country of origin. In 2008, 30% of returnees were naturalized citizens or permanent residents. Their rationale for leaving varies but generally includes the following factors: better advancement opportunities (four times better), better family values, lower salary offset by lower cost of living, high U.S. unemployment, and the view that the best days of U.S. economy were in the rearview mirror.
Bottom Line: This is a fairly simple math problem. We grow 85,000 of our own B.S.-degreed engineers a year. Even if President Obama's challenge to graduate 10,000 more engineers per year takes hold, that will just about cover the number of degreed engineers who go on to other graduate and professional schools. If the U.S. can attract upwards of 140,000 degreed engineers per year from among foreign-born engineers and assuming the U.S. demand for engineers is a net 250,000 per year, the current domestic production and foreign import of graduate engineers combined falls about 25,000 engineers short per year. Exacerbating this shortfall are potential losses of long-term S&E immigrants who return to their country of origin.
What to Do: A number of universities are planning to increase their number of engineering students. For example, Texas A&M University recently announced plans to double enrollment to 25,000 students by 2025. While this will result in larger numbers of graduates assuming current retention rates, a quicker way to close the gap is to improve the retention rate from the current 60%70%. As professional engineers, we need to work with educators and students at all levels to address this critical issue.
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