Engineer Gap: Real or Imagined?

Opinion: The much-touted U.S. deficit may be phony, a Duke study suggests.

To listen to some people, youd think the race for technology leadership in the 21st century has already been decided. China and India have won; the United States has lost.

Widely quoted numbers of annual engineering graduates support the bleak forecast. Hungry for economic development and rising personal income, India and China, we are told, are each churning out hundreds of thousands more engineers than is the backward United States.

In case youre new to this discussion, the ballpark numbers commonly quoted are these: In 2004, the United States graduated 70,000 engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000.

But, a Duke University study suggests, those numbers may be very misleading. The report, "Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate: Placing the United States on a Level Playing Field with China and India," was published by the Pratt School of Engineerings Master of Engineering management program at Duke.

"You had the brightest kids worrying about their jobs being outsourced. We thought, if kids at Duke were worried, then lets do a study about whats going on in education," said Vivek Wadhwa, executive in residence at Duke Universitys masters in engineering management program and a co-author of the study.

"The first thing you do in a study is you look at the facts. But we couldnt find any facts. The more we dug, the more we looked, the more we discovered there were no facts," said Wadhwa.

The gist of the report is contained in this sentence: "A comparison of like-to-like data suggests that the U.S. produces a highly significant number of engineers, computer scientists and information technology specialists, and remains competitive in global markets."

The operative expression is "like-to-like data." In short, the panic-producing numbers that have been bandied about simply are not like-to-like. False alarm! Bad data!

The Duke researchers asked some basic questions that none of the hysteria-mongers have been asking, such as: In what subjects are these degrees? What schools are granting them? How many years of study do they represent? Are degree recipients ready to take a real-world job?

They found that the India and China figures included sub-baccalaureate degrees and the U.S. figures did not.

If you include U.S. sub-baccalaureate graduates in the mix, the U.S. institutions are handing diplomas to 222,335 individuals each year.

The China numbers proved impossible for the researchers to pin down. The statistics were compiled from numbers submitted by the different provinces of China, which send their totals to a central statistics bureau.

It turns out there is no standard definition of engineering among the provinces and that "motor mechanics" and "industrial technicians," which are included in the Chinese totals, may actually be automobile mechanics, HVAC specialists, copier repairmen and electricians.

The Duke people also point out you need to take into account the big difference in population among the United States, India and China.

Chinas population is more than four times that of the United States; Indias is three times as great.

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In fact, the corrected data implies that for every 1 million citizens, the United States is producing about 750 technology specialists, compared with 500 in China and 200 in India.

Thats not all. If you factor in employability, which includes English-language competence, then the number of Indian and Chinese engineers that can do the work of U.S. workers is perhaps only 10 percent of the totals.

But Wadhwa said that just because they have debunked some numbers doesnt mean we have nothing to worry about.

"Some classes of jobs will be outsourced." And he said he does believe U.S. students should be encouraged to study engineering in greater numbers.

That, after all, was an impetus for the study—to lift the blanket of discouragement from U.S. students.

The report authors aim to do a true like-to-like study in the future. Until then, they have at least exposed bad data to the light of day.

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Stan Gibson can be reached at

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