Machine Design

The myth of Chinese and Indian engineers

One of the talking points used by those proclaiming an engineering shortage in the U.S. is that India and China are educating an army of engineers who will take the lead in every technology known to mankind and reduce the U.S. to a techno-backwater. One such fearmonger is Paul Otellini, a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He says China and India together turn out 1 million new engineers each year, about 12 times as many as the U.S. He also says that, “A chronic shortage of engineering students threatens America’s role as the world’s leading innovator and continues to impede our nation’s fragile economy.”

We’ve heard similar warnings about that approaching horde of foreign engineers for years, and most can be traced to a cover story in Fortune Magazine. In 2005, Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke, along with a team of students, worked to pin down the real numbers behind the claim. After miles of legwork and hours of phone calls, Professor Wadhwa and his team came up with the following numbers: For that year, the U.S. graduated about 137,000 engineers with at least a bachelor’s degree while India produced 112,000 and China turned out 351,537.

But there are still problems with that Chinese statistic. It seems in China an auto mechanic is an engineer. So is a technician. It seems there is no uniform definition of engineer in Chinese. And according to Wadhwa, “The skills of (Chinese) engineers are so poor that comparisons don’t make sense. We predicted that Chinese engineers would face unemployment. Indeed, media reports have confirmed that the majority of Chinese engineers don’t take engineering jobs but become bureaucrats or factory workers.” Of course, you can get ahead in life as a bureaucrat. In fact, it’s said that eight out of the nine current Politburo members in China have engineering degrees.

And what do high numbers of engineers in other countries have to do with the so-called shortage of technical talent in the U.S.? Surely there are enough engineering problems in Asia to keep Chinese and Indian engineers busy for a century or two. Among them: keeping the air and water clean, providing safe food, building economical transportation, and bootstrapping the population into at least a 20th-century standard of living.

U.S. companies in dire need of more engineers might consider a strategy of paying more, maybe even providing specialized training, if that’s what they need. But salaries in most engineering disciplines have barely kept up with inflation, and inflation has been low.

And my advice to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness: Concentrate on jobs. That’s more than enough to keep you busy.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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