90% of the world’s engineers Asian residents by 2010?

By Control Engineering Staff January 4, 2006
James W. Bagley, chairman of Lam Research Corp. recently addressed the U.S.’ diminishing capability to maintain competitive manufacturing leadership and parity.

In a speech to San Jose State University’s College of Engineering, James W. Bagley, chairman of Lam Research Corp. addressed the U.S.’ diminishing capability to maintain competitive manufacturing leadership and parity. The following summarizes his presentation.
He indicated that, when mobilized, the U.S. can accomplish near miracles. The solution is simple: convincing political leaders that the results of the U.S.’ degenerating, competitiveness problem can be far greater than the national disasters—such as have been recently experienced. And it’s probably a greater threat to the country than some of the ideologies that the U.S. is currently confronting.
He focused on China, which now is becoming competitive in manufacturing technology, software and engineering capability across the spectrum, physics, chemistry, and biotechnology. Whether through design or luck, China has co-opted the largest retail organization—WalMart—into being its worldwide distribution system. The result of this distribution capability has been a disruptive transformation in balances of trade virtually across the globe and has allowed China to become a country with substantial foreign currency reserves. As anyone in business knows, market access is an imperative and is usually achieved through substantial investment and hard work. China got their warehousing, distribution, and retail outlets at no cost.

During these 20 years, what was happening in the U.S.? It has promoted fair trade, open-market access, lower duties, and so on. U.S. motivations were positively based, expecting open trade improvements to the economies of most of the third-world countries, allowing them to be markets for U.S. life-enriching products based on U.S.-developed intellectual property and value-added services which would in turn improve the standard of living of U.S. citizens. The result has been somewhat different from what was envisioned 20 years ago.

The U.S. is outsourcing manufacturing at an alarming rate. China is creating manufacturing jobs at a rate equivalent to the entire U.S. manufacturing workforce each year. The U.S. is facilitating that growth rate by outsourcing its manufacturing jobs to China in order to compete with Chinese goods derived from U.S.-created intellectual property.

Examples from Lam Research and the semiconductor industry:

  • Approximately 80% of (Lam Research’s) advanced etcher systems are sold and installed in Asia.

  • Three companies in Taiwan are building more leading-edge 300mm plants than are being built in the United States. The vast majority of the leading-edge 300mm facilities being built in the world are being built in Asia.

  • (The U.S. has) gone from the largest market for semiconductors and the largest producer of semiconductors to a deteriorating second place when compared to Asia.

Some recent eye-opening information from Jay Pinson, dean emeritus of San Jose State was:

  • Today the U.S. graduates about 55,000 engineers a year—with the rate declining for the last 20 years;

  • Both law and business students graduate at about three times this rate (about 330,000 in the aggregate);

  • India graduates 300,000 engineers annually;

  • China mints 350,000 new engineers each year; and

  • Aggravating the situation is the fact that, of the U.S.’ 55,000 graduates, a meaningful percentage are foreign nationals who may or may not stay in the United States.

The U.S. cannot compete with India and China on a raw-numbers basis, nor should it—look at a combined 650,000 engineering graduates as opposed to its 55,000—because India and China are competitors. What the U.S. should focus on is dramatically increasing the number of its engineering and science graduates in those areas where it can develop and maintain a competitive advantage.

Projected over time, the engineering graduate gap, by 2010, will result in over 90% of the world’s engineers living in India, China, and the rest of Asia. This is underscored by the large number of U.S. engineering graduates now retiring, who were motivated to engineering careers due to the space race that began with the 1958 launching of Sputnik.

How is the U.S. coping with the problem today? It’s importing roughly 60,000 engineers/scientists with the H-1B visa program. In the most positive light, this is a stopgap. Analogously, over 30 years ago Detroit had been making larger, heavier cars with larger engines and degrading fuel economy, and the rest of the world, particularly Japan, was making small, fuel-efficient cars. In the‘70s there were two major oil-supply disruptions. When the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) automakers began cooperating with non-U.S. manufacturers to import fuel-efficient cars after the Big Three’s efforts had largely failed, a point of view then was that this was not necessarily a bad thing, but that this was a stop-gap until Detroit could develop competitive manufacturing technology.

Three decades later. Maybe General Motors (GM) gasoline-powered cars’ fuel efficiency is comparable to that of the Japanese, but 30 years of public perception of Detroit’s gas guzzlers makes it difficult for GM to compete. The H-1B visa program could cause the U.S. to end up in much the same way if a robust program for growing engineering enrollment/graduates isn’t developed. H-1B can’t be discontinued in the near term because the U.S. is addicted.

So what is the solution? Conceptually, it’s like losing weight—the program is simple, the execution is difficult. An approach is:

  • Begin changing the public perception about engineering careers versus doctors and lawyers;

  • Establish a national priority to increase the number of college graduates in engineering and science; and

  • Address the well-documented problems in the K-12 educational system

Over the past decade or so, there have been more than a dozen television programs depicting lawyers as the defenders and saviors of the American public.

In a similar timeframe, there have been another dozen or so programs profiling the exploits of selfless, caring, and incredibly competent members of the medical profession sacrificing family and friends working long hours, once again to save the human race.

In the last decade or so, there have been only a few programs that have highlighted technologists. Each of them has been depicted as brilliant, completely socially inept, narrowly focused super-geeks. In movies, technologists generally have been depicted as brilliant, cruel, and despicable people bent on world domination—and then there was television’s McGuyver.

Before you disgustedly sigh about the examples’ triviality, think of this:

  • When a high profile athlete lends his persona to a shoe brand, the impact on young peoples’ purchases is dramatic;

  • What is depicted in movies and television, we all know, has a huge impact on young peoples’ perceptions, thoughts, and actions; and

  • So why wouldn’t depictions of lawyers and doctors as heroes and scientists and technologists as nerds and villains make a significant impression on young people?

It’s impractical to compete with television and movies, but the accomplishments and contributions of science and technology should be shown in a positive way as well as the thousands and thousands of technologists whose careers are exciting, fulfilling, and rewarding as they contribute to developing the science and products that are helping to improve the human condition.
An influential constituency needs to be convinced to support a national priority to encourage the growth of the engineering and science enrollment in universities and colleges as was done with the space program (of the‘60s).

It will require prioritizing funds, including:

  • Low-cost student loans for students entering engineering and science curricula;

  • Expanding scholarships earmarked for engineering and science students;

  • Increasing the availability of grants to colleges and universities to enhance the facilities that support engineering and science curricula;

  • Boosting funding for graduate fellowships; and

  • Providing loan forgiveness for those science and engineering graduates who commit to teach in their field at universities and colleges for some reasonable time period.

Finally—this may be the most difficult step of all, fix K-12. In a recent article, and Bagley, “couldn’t vouch for its validity but it sounded right, teachers who dislike the subjects teach most students in K-12 science and math.” The teachers are ill prepared to teach the subjects and in many cases have a minimal grasp of the subject content itself. While he didn’t experience this during K-12, it was hard for him to believe that a teacher disliking the subject matter can make a compelling example for students to gain proficiency and excel in the subjects. Ill-prepared students leaving high school have virtually no chance of succeeding in collegiate-level engineering or science programs.

In Texas, although the law is being revisited, students in the top 10% of their high school graduating class must be admitted to colleges and universities in Texas irrespective of their ability or preparation to succeed. A well-intentioned program can adversely affect the success of students in technical curricula.

Bagley closed by saying, “The U.S. must find a way to establish competent instruction in K-12 supporting math and science preparedness. It is a political issue, if the comfort zone of some people must be disrupted to save our children and the future of our country then the decision is obvious.”

For more information see:

  • Engineers, scientists, skilled production workers missing in action

  • Refinery Expertise Preservation

Richard Phelps , senior editor, Control Engineering