Amid America’s current job crisis, some disagree about the strength of the country’s engineers.
The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness—a group created by President Barack Obama to increase employment in the U.S.—claims that the number of engineers in America is declining relative to China and India. The council, which met in Durham in June for its first off-site meeting, is a nonpartisan body focusing on growth and innovation, drawing from the expertise of 26 members from various economic sectors. It hopes to graduate 10,000 more engineers each year, Obama said when he visited the Triangle June 15, to in part discuss the growing—and unmet—demand for engineers in the domestic job market.
But some Duke faculty members believe that U.S. engineering is going strong.
“There are shortages of some types of engineers in some geographies in the U.S., but there is no general shortage of engineers,” said Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Duke Center of Entrepreneurship. “Political leaders don’t understand the realities and use this as a justification of whatever program they are promoting.”
A 2005 study conducted by the Pratt School of Engineering found that the margin of engineer graduates is closer than expected, with the U.S. graduating 140,000 engineers, India producing 120,000 and China graduating 517,225 in 2004.
Wadhwa added that China’s output, however, is continuing to exceed the U.S.’, as China is expected to graduate 1 million engineers this year.
Domestic numbers output may be lower but Wadhwa said the quality of engineers is much higher in the United States. He added that countries such as India and China are able to produce many more engineers because their populations are also much higher.
Pratt Dean Tom Katsouleas said that based on his own research, the number of engineers in the U.S. has increased during the past several years. Politicians are worried because they are noticing trends affecting specific areas of engineering rather than engineering as a whole, he noted.
“There was a big drop off in computer science and electrical and computer engineering after the [Internet] bubble burst in 2000,” Katsouleas wrote in an email Monday. “Biomedical engineering, on the other hand, has been the fastest growing major—at Pratt and around the nation.”
Wadhwa, who wrote a column on this question of engineering demand for The Washington Post Sept. 1, is confident in the quality of engineering in the U.S., though he said he is dismayed by engineering students who reject traditional engineering roles for higher paying jobs, such as investment banking. This is one topic the president’s council should focus on, instead of simply job creation.
“Many problems need to be fixed in the world,” Wadhwa said. “Engineers need to lead the charge. That is why I get upset when Duke engineers become investment bankers—this is a waste of talent, a wasted opportunity to fix problems rather than creating new ones.”
And though politicians may be anxious about the state of American engineering, some Pratt students believe the future of engineering in the U.S. is bright.
Junior Abdelkarim Moharram, a civil engineering major from Egypt, said that he is optimistic about his job prospects in the engineering sector. He is inspired by engineering jobs that Wadhwa believes are vital to the U.S. economy.
“My grandfather and his brother worked on projects that still stand today,” Moharram said. “It has given me the drive to someday show my children something I built.”
Wadhwa added that persuading some engineers to overlook high-paying jobs for more customary roles could pose a challenge.
“We have to make the profession [seem] cool and offer salaries comparable to what investment banks do,” he said.
Katsouleas said he has found that other students share Moharram’s view.
“[Engineering students] see that society has great need for what they have to offer,” Katsouleas said. “The engineering challenges of this century are to make the world more sustainable, more secure, more healthful and more joyful. That is a lot to be optimistic about.”
Update 1/9/2013: This article has been modified to better reflect Moharram's view.