Sunday, August 06, 2006

Statistics Paint A False Picture Of U.S. Engineering Prowess

While Superintendent Bobby Webb’s announced emphasis on science and math seems a worthy goal for Shelby County Schools, his statistics point out the way that bad information has a way of taking on a life of its own these days.

In the article in today’s The Commercial Appeal reporting on his concern about qualified workers to fill high-tech jobs, the newspaper said he was worried about “some numbers he’s been seeing lately…in any given year, 352,000 engineering graduates will emerge from Indian; 600,000 from China…and in America? 70,000…tops.”

These are numbers that have tossed around by every one from national publications to academicians who should know better.

About eight months ago, Duke University conducted a study as a result of the widespread repeating of these dire statistics as evidence of declining American prowess in the world. The conclusions were simple enough: they are misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

First of all, when considered in terms of population, the U.S. is producing about 750 engineering graduates for every one million people; in China, it’s 500; and in Indian, it’s 200.

In addition, when China and India report graduates in engineering, they don’t limit them to people with four-year degrees, and they include computer technology specialists and technicians. In fact, only about half of these countries’ annual engineering graduates are capable of competing in an environment known for its outsourcing. To compound the flimsiness of the statistics cited by Mr. Webb, there is even evidence that China includes motor mechanics in its number.

If you look at the kinds of jobs filled by engineers in India and China – low-paid engineering jobs at that – they are those that can be filled by transactional engineers, according to the study. In the area of high-level engineering, it’s a field that is dominated by U.S. engineers, and there’s no reason to predict that it will not remain that way.

Unfortunately, the news media devote much less attention to fact-checking these days, and these statistics have been widely spread by people with their own special interests in creating the impression of a crisis in need of their own specialized cure, whether it is more money for education or more tax breaks for corporations.

3 comments:

George Lord said...

Dear Smart City,

Thanks for this post! When I read the article yesterday, I feared I was the only one in town who had read the study debunking this data and expected I would write a letter to the editor; unfortunately letters correcting their errors are all too often ignoreed.

You are right to point out that all too often bad data is just repeated and repeated as if it is gospel. This seems to be especially true when the data is about education. Even more the case when the data about education is crying out about the "crisis."

While Mr Webb is correct to suggest that we can do a better job teaching science and math, we are not in crisis.

George Lord

George Lord said...

Dear Smart City,

I felt that it was important that the record on this data be correct, so I revisited the report done by the Duke University team, (Gereffi and Wadhwa, 2005). In their study they found that the correct 2004 numbers for comparison were 137,437 Bachelors degrees in the US, 112,000 in India, and 351,537 in China (the China numbers may well be inflated by the inclusion of auto mechanics by the Chinese Ministry of Education). Considering that China is roughly four times as large as the US and India is three times as large, the US is producing a significant number of engineers, CS, and IT specialists.

If we consider the number of degrees combined with the number of Subbaccalauteate degrees in Engineering, CS, and IT per million population in each of these countries the comparison is roughly 750 in the US, 500 in China, and 200 in India (including those pesky auto mechanics and industrial technicians which China includes in their data).

Recapping the technology leadership in the US, keep in mind that almost one-third of all science and engineering researchers in the world are employed in the US. 35% of science and engineering research articles are published in the US and the US accounts for 40% of the R&D expenditures of the world. As the Duke reserachers correctly point out, there is no guarantee the US will maintain this competitive edge, but "there is no imminent crisis (Gereffi and Wadhwa, 2005: 9)."

Gereffi and Whdhwa go on to point out that while outsourcing is a "threat," it is primarily transactional engineers which are easily outsourced. The specialized dynamic engineers created in the US are not suffering from this competition. Another study has concluded that only about 10% of the Chinese and 25% of the Indian engineers are capable of competing in the global outsourcing arena. In fact a recent article in Finance and Development showed that there is more outsourcing TO the US and the UK than other parts of the world.

George Lord

BraveCordovaDem said...

As the father of an Engineering Student (female), I have a few observations. She is also a County Schools graduate who showed early abilites in math and science but was never approached in her school about a possible Engineering career. She only decided after our own private investigation and career search.

In addition to better emphasis in Math and science in the school system, guidance should be improved to find and nurture promising engineering students.