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Author: Marie C. Thursby
Technological innovation has long been the key to US growth and prosperity, and engineering has been an important driver of this innovation. Indeed, the development and institutionalization of the engineering disciplines in US universities provided much of the talent behind US domination of world markets during the 20th century (Rosenberg and Nelson 1994). Engineering disciplines integrate scientific principles with practically oriented research, providing systems and processes that themselves create ways of acquiring new knowledge. This integration makes engineering critical to successful industrial innovation.
It is therefore sobering to see the low percentage of engineering degrees awarded in US universities today: only 4.4 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in the United States are in engineering, compared with 13 percent in European countries and 23 percent in key Asian countries (NAE 2014). Furthermore, with ever increasing economic development and growth worldwide, it is not clear that the best engineers will want to work in the United States—or that the best employment opportunities for US-educated engineers will be in this country.
Survey evidence from a large sample of R&D-intensive companies headquartered primarily in the United States and Europe shows that firms do not feel constrained to locate new research facilities at home (Thursby and Thursby 2006a). Only 15 percent of those surveyed located all of their R&D at home, and 20 percent conducted more than half of their R&D outside of their home country. Many of them located facilities in developing countries, and the second most important reason for companies’ choice of location was access to quality research personnel (Thursby and Thursby 2006a,b).1
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to evaluate the low percentage of engineering degrees being awarded in the United States. Are too few engineering degrees being sought and awarded? The figures cited above compare degrees across countries, but what are the trends in the United States? What are the occupations and employment opportunities for US-trained engineers?
This article presents evidence that, despite the low number of degrees awarded, the US production of engineers at both undergraduate and graduate levels has increased quite dramatically over time.
Engineering Degrees Awarded in the United States
The number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States has increased at all levels since 2003. As shown in Figure 1, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased by 40 percent between 2003 and 2012, with 88,176 degrees awarded in the latter year. Master’s degrees increased over the same period by 24 percent. In terms of percentage growth, the increase in doctoral degrees awarded was the most dramatic: 71 percent.
The number of doctoral degrees awarded is particularly salient in terms of engineering’s role in innovation: engineering PhDs are among the highest ranked in terms of both average number of patent applications and patents granted in 2003–2008 (NSB 2014). Among doctorate-level engineers in the workforce, 84 percent reported in 2010 that their primary job responsibility was basic research, applied research, design, or development.
Figure 2 shows the production of PhDs in nine science and engineering fields over the past 90 years. Two messages are clear. First, science and engineering PhD production has increased fairly steadily since 1945. Not coincidentally, this was the year of Vannevar Bush’s report Science: The Endless Frontier, which pushed for federal government support both for basic science research and for doctoral students to build the scientific workforce (Stephan 2012). Second, the increase in engineering PhD degrees awarded is remarkable, outpacing all other fields except the life sciences.
Since the early 1990s, however, there has been growing concern over an apparent oversupply of PhDs. Figures 3 and 4 show the percentage of PhDs who graduate with definite employment or postdoctoral commitments for the period 1992–2012. As shown in Figure 3, none of the science and engineering fields had more than 77 percent definite commitments of employment. Moreover, a significant portion of these commitments are for short-term postdoctoral training fellowships rather than industrial or academic tenure track positions (Figure 4). In 2012 two-thirds of the commitments in the life sciences were postdoctoral positions, followed closely by the physical sciences. The picture was a little less bleak for engineering—35 percent in 2012. These trends are troubling because postdoctoral positions are temporary and typically pay less than tenure track academic or industry positions.
Projected Job Opportunities: Beyond Engineering Occupations
Looking forward, projected employment in engineering occupations is not as optimistic as for other science fields or nonscience and engineering fields. Figure 5 shows that the projected increase in engineering employment (for all degree levels) between 2010 and 2020 is less than that for other science and engineering fields.
But to assess the importance of engineering, it is necessary to look beyond engineering occupations. Consider, for example, the ultimate management position, that of a CEO. Many CEOs have engineering backgrounds. As one executive put it, “engineering gives you the mindset of solving problems,” as well as the technical skills to evaluate many types of data and situations. This example is not rare. In fact, the majority of people whose highest degree is in science or engineering work in jobs outside of their degree field.
Figure 6 shows that of the 12.6 million people whose highest degree was in a science or engineering field, only 3.9 million worked in science and engineering jobs in 2008. Of the 11.2 million people whose job required bachelor’s-level technical skills, only 27 percent actually worked in science and engineering occupations and 40 percent either worked outside of science and engineering or their highest degree was outside of science and engineering. Common examples of the latter are managers or lawyers with MBAs or JDs whose undergraduate degree was in engineering. Note, however, that 7.9 million of those whose job requires bachelor’s-level technical skills work in areas closely related to their field.
The employment pattern shown in Figure 6 is not idiosyncratic but rather reflects general trends since the 1990s. This is good news because it suggests that engineers contribute well beyond their technical skills. But it also means that US universities face a major challenge: the need to design curricula to attract and prepare students for the current and future workplace, where the need for multidisciplinary skills is increasingly the norm.
The multinational firm survey mentioned above provides compelling evidence that engineers working in R&D-intensive firms will likely work on globally distributed teams (Thursby and Thursby 2006a,b), and data on the role of teams in innovation show that research teams are becoming ever larger and cross-institutional in nature (Wuchty et al. 2007). Thus engineers managing or working in R&D will need to work across many organizational structures.
The challenge for universities is to design programs that retain the rigor of engineering while broadening the curriculum to address communication across cultures, management within and across organizations, intellectual property and technology transfer issues, financing innovation, knowledge of regulatory environments, and so on.
Many US universities have stepped up to the challenge. At the undergraduate level, some have created “four plus one” programs that introduce cross-disciplinary courses or certificate programs in the fifth year. Others have introduced minors in entrepreneurship or management of technology, and a number of joint degree programs combine engineering with law and/or business. In addition, a number of universities are partnering to meet the challenge. For example, a graduate certificate program at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University teams PhD candidates in science and engineering with business and law students to focus on issues involved in commercializing fundamental research.
This article began by recalling the heart of the engineering disciplines—the integration of ideas and techniques that make engineering so essential for industrial innovation. It is fitting, then, to end on a similar note. Engineering holds great potential for continued US innovation in the future. But to realize this potential, it will be necessary for US universities to extend the “integrative” expertise of engineers into areas well beyond the technical core.
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NSF [National Science Foundation]. 2012. Doctorate Recipients from US Universities: 2011. Special Report NSF 13-301. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/digest/2011/nsf13301.pdf.
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Thursby J, Thursby M. 2006a. Here or there? A survey on the factors in multinational R&D location. Report to the National Research Council Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable. Washington: National Academies Press.
Thursby J, Thursby M. 2006b. Where is the new science in corporate R&D? Science 314:1547–1548.
Wuchty S, Jones B, Uzzi B. 2007. The increasing dominance of teams in the production of knowledge. Science 316:1036–1039.
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This article extends the comments and perspective presented by the author for the panel on “The Importance of Engineering for the Prosperity and Security of the United States,” at the 2013 annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering. Where possible the data have been updated. The author is grateful to Paula Stephan and Jerry Thursby for insightful discussions, and to Stephan for providing data she compiled from doctoral surveys.
1 The most important reason for locating in a developing country was growth potential of the market.