Where the Engineers Are: To Guide Education Policy and Maintain Its Innovation Leadership, the United States Must Acquire an Accurate Understanding of the Quantity and Quality of Engineering Graduates in India and China

By Wadhwa, Vivek; Gereffi, Gary et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Where the Engineers Are: To Guide Education Policy and Maintain Its Innovation Leadership, the United States Must Acquire an Accurate Understanding of the Quantity and Quality of Engineering Graduates in India and China


Wadhwa, Vivek, Gereffi, Gary, Rissing, Ben, Ong, Ryan, Issues in Science and Technology


Although there is widespread concern in the United States about the growing technological capacity of India and China, the nation actually has little reliable information about the future engineering workforce in these countries. U.S. political leaders prescribe remedies such as increasing U.S. engineering graduation rates to match the self-proclaimed rates of emerging competitors. Many leaders attribute the increasing momentum in outsourcing by U.S. companies to shortages of skilled workers and to weaknesses in the nation's education systems, without fully understanding why companies outsource. Many people within and beyond government also do not seem to look ahead and realize that what could be outsourced next is research and design, and that the United States stands to lose its ability to "invent" the next big technologies.

At the Pratt School of Engineering of Duke University, we have been studying the impact of globalization on the engineering profession. Among our efforts, we have sought to assess the comparative engineering education of the United States and its major new competitors, India and China; identify the sources of current U.S. global advantages; explore the factors driving the U.S. trend toward outsourcing; and learn what the United States can do to keep its economic edge. We believe that the data we have obtained, though not exhaustive, represent the best information available and can help U.S. policymakers, business leaders, and educators chart future actions.

Assessing undergraduate engineering

Various articles in the popular media, speeches by policymakers, and reports to Congress have stated that the United States graduates roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers annually, whereas China graduates 600,000 and India 350,000. Even the National Academies and the U.S. Department of Education have cited these numbers. Such statements often conclude that because China and India collectively graduate 12 times more engineers than does the United States, the United States is in trouble. The remedy that typically follows is for the United States to graduate more engineers. Indeed, the Democrats in the House of Representatives in November 2005 proposed an Innovation Agenda that called for graduating 100,000 more engineers and scientists annually.

But we suspected that this information may not, in fact, be totally accurate. In an analysis of salary and employment data, we did not find any indication of a shortage of engineers in the United States. Also, we obtained anecdotal evidence from business executives doing business in India and China that indicated that those were the countries with shortages. To obtain better information about this issue, we embarked on a project to obtain comparable engineering graduation data from the United States, China, and India.

U.S. graduation statistics are readily available from the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Extensive data on engineering education are also collected by the American Society for Engineering Education and the Engineering Workforce Commission. In order to collect similar data for China and India, we initially contacted more than 200 universities in China and 100 in India. Chinese universities readily provided aggregated data, but not detail. Some Indian universities shared comprehensive spreadsheets, but others claimed not to know how many engineering colleges were affiliated with their schools or lacked detail on graduation rates by major. In the case of China, we eventually obtained useful data from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and, most recently, from the China Education and Research Network (CERN). In India, we obtained data from the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

What we learned was that no one was comparing apples to apples.

In China, the word "engineer" does not translate well into different dialects and has no standard definition.

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