The persistence of U.S. engineering
With the rest of the world rising in economic stature and assuming many of the commodity manufacturing roles formerly performed in the U.S., some are nervous that manufacturing in America will disappear. Though the role of the U.S. manufacturing industries will continue to change, it will still play a vitally important role in the global production economy because of our strengths in engineering.
This may seem unlikely due to the regularly reported downturn in the numbers of engineers and scientists being produced in U.S. colleges. The most oft-cited evidence of this is the National Academy of Sciences 2004 report claiming that China produces 600,000 engineers each year and India 350,000, while the U.S. turns out just 70,000. However, these facts do not always add up upon closer inspection.
As Fareed Zakaria notes in his book, “The Post-American World,” a report from The Wall Street Journal (conducted with the help of several academics), shows that most of the engineers graduating in Asia are doing so with two- and three-year degrees. Basically they are getting diplomas qualifying them to perform simple mechanical tasks.
The National Science Foundation currently estimates Chinese engineering graduates at around 200,000 a year, while other studies estimate that India produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 120,000-130,000 engineers each year. This, Zakaria says, means that the U.S. trains more engineers per capita than either China or India.
A great example of the divergence in the number of advanced scientific degrees produced between the U.S. and Asia is evidenced in a statistic offered by Zakaria: “In India, universities graduate between 35 and 50 Ph.D.s in computer science each year; in America, the figure is 1,000.”
Looking beyond the pure tallies of engineering graduates in the U.S., China, and India, one must also consider the quality of the engineering graduates produced. Despite rigorous testing done abroad to select for the best students, Zakaria notes that the number of quality students who leave China and India each year to study in the West is the best evidence of the recognized quality of engineering education in the West.
None of this means we can rest easy and forever maintain our preferred status on the high ends of the global manufacturing curve (see June 2008 column). It does mean that we should recognize our status—and not bemoan the fact that other countries are catching on—while continually working to improve it by keeping our engineering academics and innovation matters of top priority.