Engineering Gap ?

An article in the Business Week today has a very interesting analysis of how figures are mentioned by the media, with nary any proof to back it up.

Reputed Indian journalist Vivek Wadhwa informs that he

“launched a study at Duke to analyze one of the most often repeated statistics in the outsourcing debate – the number of engineers graduating from India/China vs. the US.

With help from Roopa Unnikrishnan , Dr. Gary Gereffi – a world renowned sociologist and a bunch of very bright graduate students, we’ve determined that the emperor has no clothes. What politicians from all sides of the US political spectrum, National Academies AND THE PRESS have been saying about 70,000 US engineering graduates competing with 1 million from India/China is simply wrong. The numbers aren’t even close. If you measure apples to apples, the U.S. graduated 137,437 engineers, vs. 112,000 from India last year. China supposedly graduates 350,000, but we believe these numbers are grossly inflated with the inclusion of majors which we would not call engineering in India or the US. “

About That Engineering Gap…

Is the U.S. really falling behind China and India in education? Not really. Take a closer look at the data

There are few topics that generate as much heated debate as outsourcing. One side argues that globalization will lead to greater innovation and prosperity, the other says we are increasing unemployment and misery. Everyone agrees that what’s at stake is America’s standard of living and world economic leadership.

One would expect that the numbers used in such debate would be defensible and grounded. Yet researchers at Duke University have determined that some of the most cited statistics on engineering graduates are inaccurate. Statistics that say the U.S. is producing 70,000 engineers a year vs. 350,000 from India and 600,000 from China aren’t valid, the Duke team says. We’re actually graduating more engineers than India, and the Chinese numbers aren’t quite what they seem. In short, America is far ahead by almost any measure, and we’re a long way from losing our edge.

Unfortunately, the message students are getting is that many engineering jobs will be outsourced and U.S. engineers have a bleak future of higher unemployment and lower remuneration. This could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fearful young scholars stick to supposedly “outsourcing-proof” professions. In other words, we have more to fear from fear itself.

RESEARCH FELLOWS. Having been a tech exec and co-producer of a Bollywood film, I’ve long been at the center of the outsourcing debate. I wrote about how my own son called me unpatriotic and argued that I was doing wrong for America (see, BW Online, 3/12/04, “My Son, It’s Time to Talk of Outsourcing…”). Yet, in my new life in academia, I couldn’t answer the first question my engineering students asked (see BW Online, 9/14/05, “Degrees of Achievement”). They wondered what courses would lead to the best job prospects and what jobs were “outsourcing proof.”

I knew that with a master’s of engineering management from Duke, these students were destined to be leaders, and that leadership can never be outsourced. Yet I was no expert on engineering majors across the world. Dean Kristina Johnson of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering suggested we research the topic.

I enlisted the help of Professor Gary Gereffi, a world renowned sociologist and Duke outsourcing expert, and we picked a team of our brightest students. We set out to compare international engineering degrees and analyze employment opportunities. As you do in any study, we started by assessing the facts. The problem was that facts were in short supply.

BIPARTISAN CONSENSUS. In recent years, the worldwide media has cited graduation numbers that show a huge imbalance of engineering graduates coming out of Chinese and Indian schools. One commonly cited set of figures is 600,000 engineers graduated annually from institutions of higher education in China, 350,000 from India, and 70,000 from the U.S.

Top business publications have repeated these numbers. So have political leaders across the spectrum — from Ted Kennedy to Newt Gingrich. The Congressional Record references these numbers. Even the prestigious National Academies issued a press release asking federal support to bolster U.S. competitiveness, citing these numbers as part of its argument.

The U.S. numbers were easy to verify. The National Center for Education and the American Society of Engineering Education provided useful data. However, international numbers were a different story.

LOST IN TRANSLATION. Several reports cited the Ministry of Education in China and the National Association of Software & Service Companies (NASSCOM) in India. Yet none of the reports issued by these authorities that we read matched the numbers being reported.

So we called registrars of the largest universities in India and China. Chinese universities readily provided high-level data, but not enough detail. Some Indian registrars were helpful and shared comprehensive spreadsheets. Others claimed not to know how many engineering colleges were affiliated with their schools or they lacked detail on graduation rates by major.

We eventually found our way to knowledgeable employees of the Chinese Education Ministry, and the research head of NASSCOM, Sunil Mehta. After extensive discussions and reviews of more reports and data, we learned that no one was comparing apples to apples.

The word “engineer” didn’t translate well into different Chinese dialects and had no standard definition. We were told that reports received by the ministry from Chinese provinces didn’t count degrees in a consistent way. A motor mechanic or a technician could be considered an engineer, for example. Also, the numbers included all degrees related to information technology and specialized fields such as shipbuilding.

DATA BANK. There were also “short-cycle” degrees, which were typically completed in 2 or 3 years. These are equivalent to associate degrees in the U.S. Nearly half of China’s reported degrees fell into this category.

NASSCOM maintains extensive engineering graduation data. They gather data from diverse sources and create and validate projections and estimates. We couldn’t get the data to perform accurate comparisons with China, so we matched the NASSCOM definition of engineer to U.S. numbers.

We found that the U.S. was graduating 222,335 engineers, vs. 215,000 from India. The closest comparable number reported by China is 644,106, but it includes additional majors. Looking strictly at four-year degrees and without considering accreditation or quality, the U.S. graduated 137,437 engineers, vs. 112,000 from India. China reported 351,537 under a broader category. All of these numbers include information technology and related majors (click here to read the full Duke report).

WORLD OF DOUBT. What’s the point? We hear repeatedly that America is in trouble and that the root cause lies with our education system. There’s no doubt that K-12 science and math could be improved, and few will dispute that America needs to invest more in education and research.

However, our higher education system isn’t in trouble — in fact, it’s still the world’s best. We spend the most on research, produce the most patents, have the most innovative curriculum, and educate many of the world’s leaders. Take Duke University. It spends $50 million a year just on engineering research, and members of its faculty are world renowned.

The message that our engineering graduates compete with 1 million graduates from India and China has created a sense of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Why would a smart student enter a field where their job might soon be outsourced? Rather than encouraging our children to study more math and science and become engineers, we’re turning them into lawyers.

When the world hears that the U.S. education system is in decline, we scare away those who would otherwise come here to study. To keep America competitive, we must keep attracting the world’s best and brightest. America needs to do all it can to fuel innovation and maintain its lead in science and technology. By repeatedly sending the message that we’re weak, we in fact become weak.

Wadhwa, the founder of two software companies, is an Executive-in-Residence/Adjunct Professor at Duke University. He is also the co-founder of TiE Carolinas, a networking and mentoring group.

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