The Need for More American Engineers and Scientists?

Thirty years ago the U.S., Japan and even China had almost the same number of students graduating from engineering programs. The rate was around 70,000. Over the years, the U.S. has declined to the rate of 60,000 per year, while Japan and even South Korea were increasing their number of engineering graduates. Over the last five years there have been reports that China and India were graduating around 600,000 engineering students, though a Businessweek article called these types of numbers in to question. But the trend of outsourcing technical work continues to be a real issue for American trained engineers.

Earlier this year there was a chat session between President Barack Obama and a woman whose husband is an engineer, but currently unemployed. The President said that he could not understand this situation, because there have continued to be industry reports that there are not enough highly skilled engineers in the U.S. In response to this, an article was written citing the latest 2010 survey from the Center for Immigration Studies about U.S. born individuals who graduated from engineering, but are no longer working as engineers. The majority of them have moved on to other types of jobs (~1.5M), though quite a few (~101,000) are unemployed,  and 244,000 of these are not in the labor market (which means that they are not working but they are also not looking for a job).

See data below with detailed employment figures for specific types of engineers who are no longer working as engineers:

Some of the issues raised from this survey are the relatively low pay that companies are now giving to engineers. There are many companies who prefer to hire non-Americans who have earned engineering degrees, probably due to the lower expected salary. Outsourcing, as mentioned earlier, is one of the key factors for non-employment in theU.S.There are also manyU.S.companies that build factories in other countries. The reasons that these companies give are either they can not find enough competent engineers or the lower salary (again).

Slate is also saying that there is a need for engineers as well as scientists in the U.S, and they are working to collect ideas on how to improve the number of US engineers and scientists. David Plotz, the author of the article, says that American science is in crisis. In 2010, 4.9% of American jobs were in science and engineering, down from 5.3% in 2000. Based on the national aptitude tests taken by 8th graders, the majority of them score below proficiency on science subjects. For the last few decades, many of those who have mathematical and scientific minds went to work for Wall Street where they get high salaries to develop financial models rather than doing R&D to invent new drugs or design more efficient cars. I know the financial crisis stemmed some of that talent flow, but I also know that more needs to be done to make science and engineering careers exciting over the long-haul of a career.

On the other hand, Sheril Kirshenbaum of Culture of Science disagrees. She believes that there are plenty of graduates in the science and engineering fields but there are fewer track jobs available, and that we need to do more to keep women engaged in science and engineering jobs. And as those who’ve read even one of my previous posts knows, this is something I very much agree with, and am working to do something about it.

So where does this leave us? I think it is clear there is a disconnect between the people with skills, and what the needs of companies are. How to bridge that gap is what I’m trying to figure out – and I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on whether or not this disconnect is real, and how to do something about it.

About Tamra Johnson

I’m an entrepreneur and a recent MBA graduate from UCLA Anderson. I have 10 years of experience in IT Management and Systems Engineering. I love learning, helping others, exploring the world around me, running at the beach, going to concerts, and visiting family and friends. I grew up in Helotes, Texas, went to undergrad in Cambridge, MA, and now live in Venice, CA.
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