U.S. vs. China vs. India in engineering

U.S. vs. China vs. India in engineering

Summary: Vivek Wadhwa's students were concerned about having their jobs outsourced, so he undertook a study to understand the issue better. He compared graduation rates at U.S., Chinese, and Indian universities, and looked at the quality and types of graduates, and says that the situation isn't as bad as everybody thinks. But he offers some suggestions to help the U.S. stay competitive.

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TOPICS: India
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Duke University adjunct professor Vivek Wadhwa recently testified before a House Committee about a study he conducted on outsourcing and competitiveness of U.S. engineering colleges."If a certain type of engineering job can be done more cost effectively in India or China, why should we invest in graduating more of those types of engineers?" He undertook the study after getting feedback from students that they were worried about having their jobs outsourced, and that many engineering students were accepting positions outside the engineering field.

Quantity of graduates studied

The first finding was that the disparity in the numbers between U.S., Chinese, and Indian graduates is not as great as most people think. Despite the fact that the population of China and India is roughly four times that of the U.S., in 2004 they found that the U.S. graduated 137,437 engineers vs. 112,000 from India and 351,537 from China (including information technology and related majors). Additionally, Wadhwa says the Chinese numbers are suspect:

We had to rely on information provided by the Chinese Ministry of Education and could not gain comfort with their method of collecting information or the rigor in validating data. ... There were also questions about what qualifies as an engineering program in China. It appeared that any bachelor’s or short-cycle degree with “engineering” in its title was included in their numbers regardless of the degree’s field or the academic rigor associated with it. This means that the reported number of engineers produced may very well include the equivalent of motor mechanics and industrial technicians.

Quality of graduates

Although his study did not cover the question of the quality of the graduates, Wadhwa cited evidence in his testimony that "all available data indicates that the vast majority of Indian and Chinese graduates are not close to the standards of US graduates". In particular, he says, the Chinese educational focus is on quantity vs. quality. Duke researcher, Ben Rissing says that the number of technical schools in China actually fell from 4098 to 2884 in the 1999-2004 period, and the number of teachers and staff at these institutions fell 24%.

India is fairing a little better, but all is not rosy there either: 

India’s most respected educational institution is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Over the years, it has graduated many successful entrepreneurs and leaders. Anecdotal evidence indicates that IIT graduates are exceptional, but so are the graduates of top U.S. schools. Biomedical Engineering Professor Barry Myers says that he has always been impressed with IIT graduates to come to study in the U.S. But these students are only as good as the average American students that he teaches at Duke.

Apparently two problems they're having are a weaker infrastructure, and a private sector which is recruiting away their faculty.

Of course, China and India are not standing still; they're taking steps to increase their graduation numbers and quality. The most recent figures are for 2004, but some preliminary data from 2005 indicates significant increases in graduation rates for engineers. So this is not an invitation to be complacent.

Now what?

We shouldn't look at just the graduation numbers, according to Wadhwa. He proposes several steps to keep the U.S. out in front:

  • Improve education and research. Education, "is one of the most valuable investments we can make," says Wadhwa. We need to increase K-12 participation in math and science, invest more in research, and demand more from existing investments. The key is to align the priorities and objectives of industry and academia. Better industry-university alliances will also provide incentives for corporations to keep their research in the U.S..
  • Understand what gives us a long term competitive advantage. He draws the distinction between "dynamic engineers" (capable of abstract thinking and high-level problem-solving) and "transactional engineers" (responsible for rote and repetitive tasks). He also says that the broad exposure that U.S. students have to many different fields of study is an advantage.
  • Understand what businesses need. Some jobs will be outsourced, so we need to determine which will not be and focus on those. "If a certain type of engineering job can be done more cost effectively in India or China, why should we invest in graduating more of those types of engineers?"

According to Wadhwa, "By simply reacting to the numbers, we may actually reduce our competitiveness. Let’s better understand the problem before we debate the remedy."

Source: Testimony of Vivek Wadhwa 

Topic: India

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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7 comments
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  • Managers vs. HR vs. Bean Counters

    How about doing a poll of managers and human resource personnel, to find out what is their perception of engineers and engineering? It will probably have nothing to do with the true abilities of engineers, but merely with their price tag. If you go with low-bid equipment and personnel on a project, then you end up with a project that barely succeeds, if at all. But it seems to be that the business management graduates are taught to strive for total mediocrity.

    Instead of preaching to the engineering students to change what they want to do, go to the business schools and teach those future leaders of the free market what truly competent engineers are capable of.
    m-nature
  • Greenhorn EE

    During my final year of school I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion featuring several industry representatives, faculty from my school, and 6 junior and senior level EE and CPE students. Some of us had quite a bit of Co-op experience, including myself, so it wasn't like we didn't know at least a little bit about the workplace. I asked a very pointed question: considering that I had my first PC when I was 5 and there is increasing technology exposure to young people (how many 10 year olds are computer saavy these days as compared with 10 years ago?) how many more engineers are graduating as a result and how does this affect the job market I would soon be entering?

    They told me I was dead wrong. Representatives from power, semiconductors, the military and a few startups told me that they were having a killer time finding U.S. engineers and that we were in high demand. I'm currently employed, but for the most part I've seen exactly the opposite. I've been parusing Monster and other similar sites and have found an abundance of jobs in the 3 - 5 yrs experience range, but very few people willing to take on new graduates and train them. Contract work is making a huge impact on what the job market used to be.

    This study has actual research and real numbers to back it up, but I no longer think back laughingly about the "huge sucking sound" Ross Perot described more than a decade ago.

    Accountants, not engineers, are shaping the current business landscape.
    SysTech42
  • Cost effectiveness vs taking a BIG risk over your own country's security.

    What's more important, money or your friggin' LIFE? (and livelihood, but we're all told we cherish life, are pro-life, and so on...)

    Now all these products come in from other countries. You bet we should be concerned about covertly written spyware.

    We know China is not friendly with us.

    And Lord knows when India will have had had enough and tell us to bugger off as well, albeit with the same straight face China has given us because, for the moment, they want our money so they can build themselves up... just before they knock us over.

    Americans are looking at offshoring, have been, and saying "Sod this. I'm not wasting tens of thousands of dollars just so I can be in debt the rest of my life, with a job that's anything but what I studied for."

    Get real, folks. This talk of "good for the economy" is no different than Jim Jones telling you drink some tasty kool-aid. Little did Jimmy tell you, he forgot to mention the kool-aid is laced with a lethal substance. Oops.

    Or you telling your friend how to use the water hose. You teach him, he'll then take it, aim it at you, and then spray you full blast until you're drowned.

    What's going to be left of America? Has anybody thought about the future?
    HypnoToad
    • Also consider, with fewer Americans learning these things,

      when our enemies DO block us off, how will we build and repair our own electronic items?
      HypnoToad
  • RE: U.S. vs. China vs. India in engineering

    well, I'm from India, ahmedabad ..what I believe is God has give good brains to indians thought americans are physically stronger and bigger..and that's the most important factor that average indian guy's IQ is higher than any of average american guy and you can test yourself. second thing is like our environment where we have born and have gone through...we just don't miss the chance when we get....we don't have alot of oppurtunity but that challange makes us optimists...and we do well in any knowledge based industry..it's not my misconception or wrong perception..I've experienced it...and have done further study about it...hehe.
    mr.shridutt
  • RE: U.S. vs. China vs. India in engineering

    Once you look at the name of the professor testifying at the committee panel: "Vivek Wadhwa", then you have to really freakin worry. Why not ask Putin if US should be wary of Russian nukes pointed towards us? I am not bigoted, nor do I think that Mr. Wadhwa would ignore the terms of citizenship oath he likely took....but at least get some more main-stream scholars to be included as well in these panel studies. How do we know the life-long ingrained culture and Indian interests are not influencing the outcome of Mr. Wadhwa's research study.

    If we have multiple experts testifying, with no cause of concern for any possible bias, then I am all for Mr. Wadhwa's opinion. Until then I am worried about our Congress members getting decision-making assistance from Mr. Manmohan Singh.

    Eddie bauer
    eddiebau