Home-Grown Engineering Talent

The topic has become a persistent one in engineering and entrepreneurial circles: Is the United States losing its technological edge? Reports like last month’s “America’s engineering crisis” on CNBC’s Street Signs, on which I had the opportunity to appear with my esteemed colleague Jim Plummer of Stanford, fuel the perception that U.S. engineers are becoming extinct.

The program starts out with a brief clip of Xerox President Ursula Burns expressing concern that she can’t find enough home-grown workforce talent. “I don’t have a bias about hiring Indian or Chinese experts in engineering,” Burns said. “But I would just love to have the opportunity to hire more American women, more American minorities, more American skilled labor.” The program backs up her statements with a graphic showing that each year China produces 644,000 engineers and India 350,000, compared with just 70,000 in the United States.

From where Jim and I sit, in the dean’s offices of two of the nation’s premier engineering universities, this question is more complex than can be addressed in an eight-minute TV interview. A Duke University study found that the statistics reported on CNBC and elsewhere not only could not be verified, but that they also included diploma and three-year programs as well as accredited four-year baccalaureate degrees in engineering, computer science and information technology. As I mentioned on the show, what gets lost in the numbers is what we say in our College mission statement: we emphasize the education of engineering innovators and leaders rather than commoditized technology providers. Our goal is not to crowd the rank and file of world industry, but to enable engineers to connect new technology with the appropriate service models, financial tools and risk analysis to solve the world’s big problems.

This is not to say that we don’t have serious problems with our engineering pipeline, starting with the lack of K-12 students, especially young women, taking math and science subjects. As Jim said, “It’s a shame there aren’t more young people in this country who consider engineering to be a wonderfully exciting career, as I do.” Indeed, it is. We must do a better job of conveying the excitement of engineering to all our citizens.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean, College of Engineering
NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences
Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Email Dean Sastry