U.S. losing ground in engineering

Pacific Rim is producing many graduates - here and in own countries

August 14, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The United States faces a crisis in engineering - the nucleus of many vital industries - that menaces its economic future.

Pacific Rim nations are graduating great numbers of engineers and threatening to seize the mantle of industrial innovation that was pivotal to making the U.S. economy globally dominant. Last year, foreign nationals also won almost 60 percent of American engineering doctorates.

Experts warn that the U.S. lead is slipping away.

"We are being outproduced in engineering graduates - both undergraduate and graduate level - by Pacific Rim countries, and the comparison will be more extreme as the years go by," said Richard Heckel, founder of Engineering Trends, a research consultancy. "From an engineering standpoint, the future leaders of the world are going to come from the Pacific Rim."

Relative to the sizes of their populations, Asian nations such as Taiwan and South Korea are graduating five times as many undergraduate students in engineering as the United States. Engineering Trends did an exhaustive study and determined that the United States ranked 16th per capita in the number of doctoral graduates and 25th in engineering undergraduates per million citizens.

This isn't merely an academic problem. It affects virtually every engineering specialty in society beyond the civil and structural designers who build roads and bridges, including chemical, petroleum, industrial and especially electrical and computer engineering.

In such fields, U.S. companies have designed everything from spray cans to the space shuttle. Historically, Americans have prided themselves on ingenuity and innovation. If America slides in engineering, it will lose a competitive economic advantage along with part of its national identity.

"Our ability to innovate in this country is diminishing," said Don Giddens, the dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which ranks among the nation's top five engineering schools. "If you look at the number of patents, they are shifting now to other places. Scientific papers that are published, citations - we are clearly losing ground in terms of the competitive stance we've had."

"I don't think we can risk leaving innovation to other countries and rely on a service-oriented economy," said Lawrence Goldberg, a senior engineering manager at the National Science Foundation, a government agency that helps finance research. "New ideas and new technologies allow companies to get product first out the door."

Targeting resources

The foundation tries to target resources to developing breakthrough technologies that hold both commercial and scientific applications. But its total research-support budget this year is $4.2 billion, which doesn't go far when the high-tech equipment involved often costs many millions of dollars.

"In the longer term, when you couple the manpower issue in science and engineering with the lack of [federal] investments, we are slipping," said Giddens. "There's just no other way you can interpret that."

U.S. universities continue awarding more doctoral degrees in engineering than universities anywhere. But the American Association of Engineering Societies said foreign nationals received 58 percent of the U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering last year: 3,766 degrees of 6,504. A decade earlier, foreign nationals accounted for less than half of U.S. engineering doctorates.

The growing pool of international talent, experts say, makes engineering a sector that's ripe to move overseas. Wall Street investment banks and large U.S. accounting firms have shifted many routine jobs abroad. Engineering could follow.

"We are going to have to think more strategically about talent that we took for granted," said Kent Hughes, a researcher for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the author of Building the Next American Century: The Past and Future of Economic Competitiveness.

"Virtually anything that can be done digitally can be done offshore and from anywhere in the world."

Creating top-level jobs

It isn't just an issue of transferring jobs overseas; top-level engineering jobs once created in the United States are being created abroad. General Electric Co. has opened research centers in Shanghai, China, and Bangalore, India, in the past five years.

"A global company like GE needs to have a global presence to be successful," said Todd Alhart, spokesman for GE Global Research in upstate New York. "We are going after research talent all over the world."

Hiren Thacker illustrates these trends. He's 28, from the Indian city of Calcutta and about to receive his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech in computer and electrical engineering. Until a few years ago, it was assumed that someone like him would seek work in the United States.

Thacker said he was weighing Silicon Valley, but also thinking maybe China or Taiwan. After all, GE - whose slogan is "imagination at work" - and other big players are doing research across the Pacific Rim.

"That's an indication that they're saying they will go elsewhere if need be," Thacker said.

He may go elsewhere, too.

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