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

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.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor

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 

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