Engineers: The Next Generation - Do we need more? Who will they be? What will they do?

Charles M. Vest
speaker
Charles M. Vest Read Bio
National Academy of Engineering
Subject: Engineers: The Next Generation
Venue: J.W. Marriott Hotel
Date of speech: October 16, 2011

Do we need more engineers?

The distinguished National Academy volunteers who wrote the influential report Rising Above the Gathering Storm believed that we need to increase the number of engineers graduating in this country. Not everyone agrees with this assessment and I am frequently asked, “Do we really need more engineers?”

I think the answer is “Yes,” for at least four reasons:

  1. U.S. industry, including the national security industry, is facing a wave of retirements in the coming years;
  2. It is not crystal clear that we will forever be able to fill the engineering gap with the best and brightest from other countries;
  3. Many high-tech companies report that they cannot find qualified U.S. citizens to fill critically important engineering and technology jobs, including in manufacturing; but most important of all,
  4. We need a new generation of brilliant engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs to create a vibrant future, just as preceding generations did.

 So, yes, I think we need more engineers and better engineers. 

But thank goodness we live in a democracy with the personal freedom to choose what we study and how we plan to spend our lives. Admittedly, in the current unhappy economic times we have brought on ourselves, young people feel more constrained than I did at their age. But they still will have a lot of choice over time about what to make of themselves. The last thing I would want is for the government or some other group to dictate fields of study or how many people we need in each professional field. On the other hand, leaders in our society, including the private sector that actually provides career opportunities do need to think clearly about trends and what they imply about the future. This is necessary to provide broad guidance to our educational system, our culture, and our incentive systems.

Who will they be?

So what are some of the trends that we might consider? First, we should think globally. How do we stack up in the education of engineers? Thirty years ago the U.S., Japan, and for that matter, China, each educated the same number of engineers each year, about 70,000. But over time, the number of U.S. students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in engineering declined slowly but more or less continuously to about 60,000. In the meantime, Japan and even South Korea exceeded our engineering graduation rates. And of course, as you have heard many times, the number of first engineering degrees in China grew astoundingly to almost 600,000! India apparently has followed similar trends, but data are very hard to find.

First Engineering Degrees in Various Countries

Yes, I know. There is a huge range of quality across China’s higher education system. But the best of their universities are getting pretty darn good in engineering and science, and we can safely assume that the overall quality trend is upward. But I also know that China’s population is more than 1.3 billion people; they are climbing the economic ladder rapidly, at least in the eastern part of their country; and they have huge infrastructure to plan, design, and build. So of course they need vastly more engineers than we do.

But it would be quite rational to ask what percentage of college and university graduates around the world are earning degree in engineering and science. The answer is very interesting. Whether we look across Asia, or Europe, or the U.S., roughly 10 to 13 percent of college and university students graduate with degrees in one of the natural sciences.

What about engineering? Well, across Asia more that 21 percent of the students are graduating in engineering fields. Across Europe, just under 12 percent of recent graduates are engineers. In the U.S.? 4.5 percent. We are at the bottom of the list in this metric.

Fraction of First Earned S&E Degrees in U.S.

Does this make any difference? I think it does.  I will come back to that, but for the moment, let’s ask whether this low fraction of U.S. students graduating in engineering is a new phenomenon? Actually, it has been the case for almost 50 years. The total number of bachelors degrees in all fields has grown by 220 percent from 500,000 in 1966 to 1.6 million today while the numbers of engineers graduated has grown at half that rate from about 33,000 to just under 70,000. And the number of engineering graduates has pretty much been stagnant since the mid 1980s; i.e. for three decades.

U.S. Bachelors Degrees Awarded

Who have we been educating, and whom will we educate in the future? Now the plot thickens. Let’s start with gender, because therein lies much of the reason for our low fraction of B.S. degrees in engineering.

All that growth across the years in bachelor’s degrees? Women have dominated it. Their numbers grew by 350 percent during this period, from 200,000 in 1966 to 900,000 today. The number of men graduating grew at only one third this rate; so today almost 60 percent of our university graduates are women.

U.S. Bachelors Degrees Awarded All Fields by Gender

 But when we look at U.S. engineering graduates, we have a world-class Flip Flop of this situation. 

U.S. Bachelors Degrees Awarded Engineering by Gender

Women in America today earn less than 20 percent of the engineering degrees. (This Flip Flop is so glaring that it makes the politicians look like pikers.) I mean only 1.3 percent of the women graduating from U.S. colleges and universities are engineers! There are many historical and cultural reasons for this – some of which we understand and some of which we may not understand. But the fact remains that engineering is attracting only a small share of the fastest growing segment of college students. This is a huge waste of talent. We can do something about this. And we must do something about this. 

Engineer Girl

There is another piece to the puzzle of the small fraction of graduates who are engineers. It turns out that when students arrive at our universities for their first year, move into the dorms, and begin their college adventure, almost 10 percent of them plan to study engineering. Wait a minute. I said that only 4.5 percent of our graduates are engineers. Yes indeed, we lose half of them on the way though college. We lose 50 percent of the women. And we lose 50 percent of the men.

U.S. Universities: Undergraduates Education, Engineering

 So there must be something about science and engineering education that drives students away. Right? Think again. Less than a third of the women students leave science before graduation. That is not good, but it’s not as bad as in engineering. On the other hand, the ranks of male scientists grow by 15 percent on the way through college. I can guess where the 15 percent growth comes from. It most likely includes many of the engineers we lost along the way.

U.S. Universities: Undergraduates Education, Natural Sciences

 Bottom line: Half of the engineering students leave the field during their university years. If we simply didn’t lose the engineering students who enter university, we would instantly double our national output of engineers.

 Why does this happen? Surely there are as many specific reasons as there are students, and surely the overall situation varies from school to school, but across the entire system, we are failing in some combination of inspiration, motivation, and learning. That is one reason that the National Academy of Engineering promotes and encourages innovation and change in the quality of experience and learning of our undergraduates. I think it is imperative, and I know that many people sitting in this room are deeply and effectively bringing about such change about in their institutions, but far more needs to be done. We have to consider the possibility that we are our own worst enemy.

NAE and Engineering Education

 I am worried that I am throwing too many numbers at you. Not always a good idea in a speech. Sorry, but I have a few more. Because we have been looking in the rear view mirror and at the present situation, you might say, “So what? It’s the future that is important. More women are coming into engineering now. It is a very exciting time in technology. And we are going to be needed to address many of the grand challenges facing humankind in the years ahead. Maybe everything will be OK.”

Maybe. But I doubt it.

To look ahead, one needs to think about the generation of Americans who are in the age range of 18-23, i.e. of “college age.” In 1985, 10 percent of this age group was Hispanic American. Today they are 17 percent. They are on a very steep growth curve. Similarly, college-age African Americans are growing as a fraction of the population, and the growth rate of young Asian Americans is greater still.

Our Minority Population is Growing

The point here is that taken together, our two largest racial minority groups comprise about one third of the college-age kids in our country, and that fraction is steadily growing. But … they earn less than 13 percent of the engineering degrees.

This is a Workforce Train Wreck

Let me repeat this. The fastest growing segment of our young population earns less than 13 percent of our engineering degrees. Projecting forward, we have a Work Force Train Wreck. We need to take action now to avoid it.

So why hasn’t the United States already been steamrollered? The answer is clear. We have addressed the engineering gap by attracting remarkable talent from around the world to study in the U.S. and have been fortunate that many have stayed and become leaders in industry, academia, and entrepreneurship. Large numbers of such individuals still aspire to stay and contribute to the U.S., but our visa policies increasingly make their path difficult. We must fix this post haste. Furthermore, this gravy train is slowing down. Larger numbers of engineers and entrepreneurs are returning to China, India and elsewhere. Vivek Wadwha’s surveys indicate that their primary reasons for returning are that their professional careers or the companies they wish to found can be built much faster back in China or India.

Why I Returned Home

 Furthermore, for many decades, we have followed a truly bizarre federal policy of (a) making it hard for brilliant and accomplished foreigners to enter the U.S to work, and (b) pushing immigrants who have earned advanced degrees in our universities out of the U.S. This is simply wrong headed, and it has gotten worse since 9/11. And by the way, it is not only wrong headed; it is bipartisan. Silicon Valley’s leaders come to town saying, “For heavens sake, staple a green card to every engineering and science graduate degree.” No matter which party is controlling what, the politicians say, “We understand you and we are going to fix it, but it must be part of a comprehensive immigration bill.” Then they return to their partisan gridlock, being careful not to arrive at such a comprehensive solution. The nation suffers the consequences.

What will it be?

 To repeat, we are still considered a wonderful destination for engineers from around the world, but we are going out of our way to make it difficult for them to get here or stay here. So, nonsensical immigration policy is cause number two for worrying about a possible Workforce Train Wreck. On top of that, many of our recent immigrant engineers and entrepreneurs are part of an increasing brain circulation around the globe – returning home or going to yet another country. And, of course, many of our own young Americans are joining this great circulation as well. 

We need to press even harder to get this problem fixed. Even more importantly, we need to actually get serious about improving K-12 education in America. And we need to enlist all who understand the issue to work to change the conversation, and get kids to understand that “Dreams need doing,” and that, “Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.” And we need to help them to understand that most of the Grand Challenges facing humankind can only be solved with engineers at the center of the effort. And finally, we need to work really creatively to improve engineering education across the country.   We cannot rest on our laurels. Having been the best in the world for the last 50 years guarantees nothing going forward. 

What will they do?

Yes, I am worried about the quantity and quality of the future engineering workforce, but what will they do?

Suppose I had been asked this question when I graduated from engineering school in 1963. I probably would not have answered, “Why, they’ll work in the IT industry.” I wouldn’t have given this answer because the IT industry did not exist. Yet a huge fraction of the engineers of my generation indeed ended up working in the IT industry. The IT industry was built because engineers innovated. They figured out how to do new things, and some of these things, like IT, turned out to be complete game changers and major job creators. Indeed, the IT revolution created 22 million U.S. jobs in one decade.

Do I know what the next game-changing innovation will be? Of course not. But all the historical precedents lead me to be extremely optimistic that there will be one … if we invest in education and research, build a great environment for entrepreneurship, and put sound economic policies in place. We’d better do this, because we increasingly will need to be first out of the box and first to market with new products, processes, and services.

Come to think of it, if I had listened more carefully to the emerging language of engineering in 1963 I at least would have caught an inkling that something called IT might blossom and grow. I didn’t have the necessary prescience, but we can listen to the language of engineering today. I hear the same words I heard throughout my career … terms like:

Force Speed
Size Tolerance
Modulus Voltage
Temperature Precision

 This is the language of basic engineering, and it is as relevant today as it was when I started out.

But now I also hear things like:

Scale Scope
State Complexity
Integration Architecture
Resilience Evolution
Affordability
Social Context.

 This is the language of engineering systems. It is about how things are interconnected and interacting. And it is about integrating what engineers know and can do with what social scientists, management experts, policy makers, citizens groups, lawyers, and politicians know and can do. This integration is essential if we are going to create a vibrant future.  Writing about Steve Jobs last week, New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote, “The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing.”  So our universities need to prepare engineering students accordingly.

Let me tell you what else I increasingly hear. I hear about things like: 

Cellular Circuitry Adaptive Immunity
Reprogramming Bacteria Synthetic Biology
Natural Adhesives Bacteria-Laced Concrete
Integrated Cancer Research Neuroprosthetics

 This is the language of a new biological engineering, of the Convergence of the life sciences with engineering and physical science that is beginning to range far beyond medical applications. The life sciences and also biomemetics are new foundations for engineering. Biological engineering is more or less where computers were in 1963.

And there is yet another strand of language I am hearing. I hope you are hearing it too because we at the National Academy of Engineering are making a concerted effort to purposely propagate it:

Engineers are creative problem solvers.

Engineers make a world of difference.

Engineers help shape the future.

Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.

Engineers can meet the Grand Challenges of the 21st century.

Listen to the language of engineering

This language is intended to change the public perception of engineering, especially among bright young people who aspire to prepare to make the world a better place … to drive sustainability, to help advance the cause of better health, to make the world more secure, and to expand humankind’s capabilities and enable more joyful, productive lives.   

What Engineers will do

I am not worried about what engineers in this country will do in the future, and I do believe that we will need more good engineers, because I believe that they will continue to innovate, produce new industries, and drive economic and social vitality, just as they have done for the last two centuries. To be slightly more accurate, they will accomplish these things if we make the proper investment, and give them the appropriate policies, and corporate and political leadership to build a vibrant future.

But there is one very important part of the future of jobs and engineering work in the U.S. that is particularly puzzling. That is the future role of manufacturing.

Twenty years ago, an MIT commission conducted a study that was published as an influential book, Made in America. The primary finding of this study was that “To live well, a nation must produce well.” Is this still true today, in 2011? The answer to this question has a major bearing on what engineers will be doing in the coming decades, and where they will be doing it. It also has major ramifications for the nature of the U.S. economy and workforce in general. It has a lot to do with jobs and with education.

Twenty years ago

Although by some metrics, the U.S. is doing well in manufacturing right now, there are some very disturbing trends. For example, consider the manufacturing of solar photovoltaics. In the mid 1990s, the U.S. had almost half of the world’s market share. Today, our share is about 5 percent. Well, maybe this isn’t a huge industry and we shouldn’t care. On the other hand, this segment of green energy products and infrastructure may be a leading indicator … a harbinger of what lies ahead. Maybe we should care.

Worldwide shipments of Solar Photovoltaics in Megawatts

Or maybe we shouldn’t care, because we are well along our way to becoming a service economy. Things change. In 1800, a full 90 percent of American workers lived and worked on farms. American farmers grew crops and raised animals to feed their families, and as time rolled on they fed their communities, and eventually they fed the nation and large chunks of the world. But their numbers continually decreased and today only about 2-3 percent of the U.S. workers are farmers. Why has this happened? It has happened because farm productivity has increased astoundingly as scientific knowledge, sophisticated technology, and business organization were applied.

Is Services the answer?

But the industrial age came along and most jobs displaced from farms reappeared in factories where workers produced ever more numerous and complex products. They made things. By 1950, about 60 percent of U.S. workers were making physical goods in factories. Then industrial productivity grew better and better, so factory jobs started declining and today less than a third of the workforce is making physical things.

These have been tectonic shifts. The old order has changed. As one telling example, in 1970 the Big Three automobile manufacturers employed more than 450,000 workers in the state of Michigan. Today, they employ less than 100,000.

Big 3 Employers in Michigan

We all know what happened. It’s not only about increasing productivity. Our society became more complex and demanding; the IT revolution came along; and globalization spread operations all over the world. The action and the jobs moved into the service sector. Today, around 70 percent of U.S. jobs are in the service sector – ranging from flipping hamburgers to conducting sophisticated global operations using supercomputers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

So what happened to manufacturing? A large amount of it moved offshore. In a typical scenario, a product may initially be manufactured here in the U.S.; then its production is moved to Korea or Taiwan; later it goes to China; and then it migrates to, say, Vietnam.  

The common wisdom is that all this happens because wages are much lower in those countries. But it is not this simple. For example, Germany’s manufacturing sector is booming and is responsible for 21 percent of its GDP. Yet the all-in wage rate for German factory workers is 40 percent higher than that in the United States.

Manufacturing: Compensation Costs vs. GDP

But it is not simply about “here or there.” Today all large corporations are global entities. They must be such in today’s economy. The end result of all this is that we are generating enormous wealth in the U.S., but the traditional manufacturing jobs, and increasingly, a good chunk of the engineering functions have gone to other countries. Looked at from the perspective of the developing world, this is described as the “U Curve Theory.” They see the U.S. retaining many of the high-quality jobs in the front office, the R&D facilities, and the design centers, and then shipping the low-wage manufacturing jobs to them. They see the big financial returns from these manufactured goods going back to the U.S. along with the higher-paying marketing and sales functions. There is some truth to this.

The U Curve Theory

And remember that in 1990 Robert Reich famously asked, “Who is us?” Of course what he was asking is whether the interests of U.S. companies and the interests of the U.S. economy are diverging. 

Who is Us?

We have never really answered this question. And in the current bad economic climate, it is being asked again, including by protesters on Wall Street. 

That is to say

I think that we need some serious introspection about, “Who is us?” And whose interests are being served? But the fact is that globalization has been the dominant reality for several decades, and it is here to stay. Because the world is totally interconnected, both manufacturing and service functions are distributed far and wide with the consequence that corporate interests and national interests have become the Yin and Yang of global enterprise. 

Global Enterprise

Indeed, in today’s world, nations must simultaneously compete to drive excellence and wealth and cooperate to gain efficiency and spread markets.

Nations and Companies Today

So, in my view, Robert Reich’s question has no simple answer, but we should expect our leaders in both corporations and government to more explicitly think through this issue and drive toward a balance that favors our own nation to the extent that is reasonable. Exactly how we can define “reasonable” in this complex, interconnected, open, transforming world of competition and cooperation is not clear to me. But it must continually be on the minds of leaders. 

Above all, our leaders should lead by explaining the modern world more clearly and by investing the resources necessary for the next generation to succeed. The clock is running out. I fear our politics has become a circus in the face of serious challenges and global transformations. It should not be our destiny to stand around and simply observe a new New World in the East moving on. 

Our leaders must lead by implementing the agenda our National Academies laid out in Rising Above the Gathering Storm – big time.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm

 That means investing in long-term R&D. It means enabling us to attract the best and brightest from the U.S. and throughout the world to engineering and science. It means reinvigorating the environment for innovation and entrepreneurship. Above all, it means building an America with world-class education and training for all our young people.

The Agenda

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.”