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Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Study: U.S.-Asian Engineering Gap Overstated

Study: U.S.-Asian Engineering Gap Overstated

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Business leaders and politicians in the United States could be scaring away high school students from pursuing math- and science-related careers by focusing on the large numbers of engineers produced by China and India and the loss of such U.S. jobs to outsourcing, a report says.

The report, released last month by Duke University, points to widely cited figures showing that in 2004 the United States produced 70,000 engineers, compared with 600,000 for China and 350,000 for India. But those comparisons are inappropriate, the authors argue, because the U.S. engineering graduates have completed four-year degrees from accredited institutions, while the numbers from China and India include engineers who have completed three-year programs or diplomas.

Moreover, China and India include computer science and information technology graduates in their counts—something the United States does not do.

When a better comparison is made by counting only holders of four-year-degrees in the three countries and adding the information technology and computer science graduates in the United States to the mix, the United States in 2004 actually produced 137,400 engineers, compared with 351,500 in China and 112,000 in India, the report says.

U.S. vs. China and India

A study found that the United States produces more engineering, computer-science, and information-technology graduates per capita than China or India.

What’s more, it says, the United States produces far more engineers per capita than either of those countries.

“But when all the politicians and everyone else is going around saying it will be 70,000 of us against 1 million from China and India, any smart high school student would question why should I get into engineering when my job is going to be outsourced?” said Vivek Wadhwa, a co-author of the study and an adjunct professor in the Pratt school of engineering at Duke, located in Durham, N.C. “We are scaring children away from doing exactly what we want them to be doing.”

‘No Imminent Crisis’

Many leaders in American business and government say they are worried that U.S. students’ weaknesses in mathematics and science have made the country more vulnerable to foreign competitors. ("U.S. Leaders Fret Over Students’ Math and Science Weaknesses," Sept. 14, 2005.)

But according to the Duke report, almost one-third of the world’s science and engineering graduates are employed in the United States.

“It is clear that the U.S. is not in the desperate state that is routinely portrayed. ... there is no imminent crisis,” concludes the report, which used data from the departments of education in the United States and China, and from the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, the chamber of commerce for India’s information-technology industry.

That conclusion contrasts with a Business Roundtable report released in July that warned about a decline in the number of U.S. students studying math, science, technology, and engineering.

“If you look at the field as a whole—science, technology, engineering, and math—you just don’t see the numbers of students who are interested in going into these fields and interested in graduating in these fields,” said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Washington-based Business Roundtable.

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Page 6

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