An interesting juxtaposition of articles today on the training of engineers. In the New York Times is an OpEd piece by Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy – “America’s Future Is Stuck Overseas” – which summarizes the need for foreign students, especially in science and engineering. He makes an interesting point on the role of foreign students:
without international students, certain science and engineering programs could not be offered at many American universities, because the foreign students populate classes and serve as teaching assistants. They also go on to supply faculty for those programs.
[Note: As a graduate from an engineering school (in my case from the University of Michigan), I can verify that this is not a new phenomena. The same thing was said when I was in school 30 years ago.]
Juxtapose to that argument this story from the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal – Behind ‘Shortage’ of Engineers: Employers Grow More Choosy:
Many companies say they’re facing an increasingly severe shortage of engineers. It’s so bad, some executives say, that Congress must act to boost funding for engineering education.
Yet unemployed engineers say there’s actually a big surplus. “No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage,” says demographer Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
. . .
In fact, the number of students graduating with a bachelor of science degree in computer science rose 85% from 1998 to 2004, according to figures compiled from universities by the Computing Research Association. The number of bachelor degrees in engineering rose to 72,893 in 2004 from 61,553 in 1999, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
The Journal article tries to get to the heart of this conundrum: the skills mismatch.
Amid rapidly changing technology, the engineers employers want aren’t necessarily the engineers who are available. And companies often create the very shortages they decry by insisting on applicants who meet every item on a detailed list of qualifications.
. . .
Hiring managers often prefer to wait for the candidate who has the exact combination of attributes they seek, rather than immediately hiring someone who comes close and then giving that person time to get familiar with a new machine or software program.
And with technology changing rapidly, yesterday’s skills are not necessarily in demand today.
Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that for older engineers, “there is a problem of technology moving at a very fast rate. When engineers are without jobs, it is usually because they have not kept up.” Mr. Sylvester, the recruiter, puts it more bluntly: “A guy who’s been working on a 15-year-old application is a dinosaur.”
“Getting engineers who have the type of talent you need, quickly — a great background, very well-educated, mobile — has become more important over the last few years,” says Jane Leipold, vice president for human resources at Tyco Electronics, Harrisburg, Pa., a unit of Tyco International Ltd. “The demands are different. The advances in technology mean you need very specific talents.”
One employer demand that flummoxes many engineers is the need for “soft” skills — working in groups, communicating and writing. In August, Cornell University hired a speaker to instruct its engineering students in “etiquette and interpersonal skills.” (Hints: Don’t crumble crackers into your soup or blot your underarms with the dinner napkin.)
“During the dot-com boom demand for electrical and computer engineers was so great it was enough if you could just write code,” says Prof. Khosla. “Things have changed a lot.”
[Ironically, it is claimed that the lack of “yesterday’s skills” is what gave a large boost to offshoring as companies had a hard time finding people in the US who could work on the older Y2K vulnerable systems – and went overseas, specifically to India, to get those skills.]
So – what is to be done?
Both stories contain seeds of a sensible technology policy. Mr. Anderson and others are absolutely right that we need to continue to attract foreign students. The inflow of talent has greatly enriched our economy and to restrict that flow (as we seem to be doing in the name of national security) is the proverbial cutting off our nose to spit our face. As Richard Florida noted at an Athena Alliance event this summer, we are becoming, or appearing to be, more restrictive—both by neglect and by policy. As a result of this and other factors, the US may be losing the competitiveness race to the emerging giants of India and China.
And we need, as a recent National Academy of Sciences report Rising Above the Gathering Storm points out, to dramatically increase our support for R&D and science/engineering education. As I have said before, it is absolutely absurd that we have to defend the bi-partisan technology programs that we put in place in the 1980’s. In this regard, the work of the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA) is to be commended.
But we just can’t go around yelling “fire”. Nor can we rely on the old solutions (see my piece on the new competitiveness challenge). As the Journal story points out (and again I’m old enough to attest to this) we have been here before:
Many executives who contend there’s an engineer shortage today predict it will get worse over the next decade as baby boomers begin to retire. This summer a report from a business consortium called for doubling the number of science and engineering graduates by 2015 to fill a projected gap. But crystal balls about labor markets tend to be cloudy. In the mid-1980s, the National Science Foundation predicted “looming shortfalls” of some 675,000 scientists and engineers in the following two decades. They never materialized.
We need a new approach – and here is where the Journal story hints at a real possibility. We need to pay more attention to keeping our existing engineering and scientific workforce up to speed! It is not just about training new engineers (that is one way to get the latest skills). It is about making sure that the current workforce never becomes “dinosaurs”.
One idea is a human capital investment tax credit, as suggested by Catherine Mann. This would be available both for new hires (helping offset the cost of acquiring the niche specialized training that employers say they need to spend so much time searching for) and, most importantly, for current workers (to give them the new skills need to continue on the job).
We also need to change our accounting system so that we measure and track those investments in human capital. As the saying goes: what gets measured, gets managed.
Another idea is finding ways to strengthen ongoing “continuing education” programs at universities, colleges and community colleges. We could also increase support for workers who are continuing their education – either part-time or while they are still employed.
We also need to find ways to strengthen the informal mechanisms of knowledge creation and transfer: mentoring, the transfer of tacit knowledge in social settings (social capital), etc. We must not restrict our attention to just the original “formal” classroom education. In the I-Cubed economy, learning can’t stop when a person leaves the building.
Let’s put our attention on the total skill development of the S&T workforce – and everyone else, for that matter. That is how we will strengthen our competitive advantage and avoid the skills-person mismatch that seems to plague our S&T labor market.