Monday, March 28, 2011

U. S. Engineers: Not Without Honor Except In Their Own Country

One of the better-known sayings of Jesus is that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. Another way of saying the same thing is the adage that an expert is just an ordinary guy who happens to be from out of town. The profession of engineering in the U. S. is not what public-relations firms would call “high-profile.” And when you hear statistics cited that China graduates 600,000 engineers every year compared to less than 100,000 in the U. S., you could be excused for thinking that the profession of engineering in the U. S. is headed the way of the Blockbuster video chain, which recently declared bankruptcy. But an interesting report a few years ago by a Duke University research group on global engineering and entrepreneurship shows these trends in a different light, and gives us at least some ideas about what to do.

Entitled “Where The Engineers Are,” the report says that when people take engineering graduation statistics from India and especially China at face value, they are unwittingly comparing apples and oranges. For one thing, the offshore statistics routinely count two- and three-year degrees the same as four-year bachelors’ degrees, which is not done in U. S. compilations. The numbers from China are not gathered in a uniform way and show some irregularities owing to a tremendous push on behalf of the government there to increase the number of engineering graduates. In India, there is no single agency charged with the responsibility of gathering engineering statistics of this type, so computer-science degrees are often mixed in with the engineering degrees, and there are some programs there which do not have an exact equivalent in the U. S. When the authors (who traveled to China and India as part of their research) asked managers of companies where they can get engineers comparable in background and quality to the “standard” product of U. S. engineering schools, the managers typically named only a few universities in their respective countries, out of the hundreds of institutes that are producing people who are counted as engineering graduates. So the picture that emerged was a two-tiered kind of affair: a few select universities graduating a relatively small number of engineers with the backgrounds typical of U. S. four-year schools, and a much larger and varied group of organizations producing the hundreds of thousands of people cited in the statistics, many of whom would not be classified as engineers in the U. S.

Does that mean there’s nothing to do and we can all go back to our knitting, so to speak? Not necessarily. An important aspect of any well-functioning profession is a sense of honor on behalf of its members: the notion that one belongs to a select group which is admired and looked up to by the general public, and whose reputation and integrity is therefore worth preserving by individual effort. Think of the recruiting ads put out by the U. S. Marine Corps, who are always looking for “a few good men.” While engineers rank fairly high in polls that ask what the most trusted professions are, pharmacists rank even higher. I don’t watch TV that much, but I don’t recall hearing about any TV shows starring a charismatic, handsome pharmacist. But lawyers, doctors, and even politicians and mobsters get that kind of exposure.

The kinds of people a culture honors says a lot about its desires and ambitions. In China, according to the Duke researchers, anyone who succeeds in publishing a research paper in an international journal is treated like a hero. But in the words of Rodney Daingerfield, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that in the U. S., engineers “don’t get no respect.”

This may be one reason why there is such a dearth of native U. S. students who pursue advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences. The result is that a majority of graduate students in these disciplines are from other countries, and while many of them stay here and contribute in positive ways that are out of proportion to their percentage of the population, an increasing number return to their native countries, where they can find highly prestigious management and technical positions.

What can be done, not only to better the situation of the engineering profession in this country, but to contribute to the global situation in a positive way? There are two basic approaches, which cast in economic terms are (1) restricting supply and (2) increasing demand. Some call for restrictive immigration policies that would make it harder for foreign citizens to either get advanced degrees in the U. S. or to stay here once they did. I favor the second approach, which is to make it easier for us to keep good foreign students and to attract more good students of any origin into programs that don’t require such severe financial sacrifices as present graduate programs do now.

One idea I haven’t seen much support for lately is the notion of changing the way we fund research in this country. Most of the research funds go to the researchers themselves, who then hire students on the open market at reduced rates compared to what the students could earn in industrial employment. What if we took a big chunk of money away from those guys (which includes me, by the way) and gave it to the best students instead, regardless of citizenship? You’d have to have some kind of competitive examination or other to find them, but once they got in, you could have favorable visas fast-tracked to the foreign students, and everybody who got in would get virtually a free ride financially to a graduate degree, as far as they wanted to pursue it. You’d need some time limits to prevent people from turning into perpetual graduate students, but that wouldn’t be hard. It would change the nature of the research business considerably, but schools and researchers would be competing for students with these new fellowships, rather than competing directly among each other for funding.

That’s the student end; how about the researcher and engineer end? There are awards for excellence in engineering and science, but they are definitely low-profile and scarcely cause a blip in the public consciousness or the media. I’m not in show business, but it sure seems like you could jazz up these kinds of awards with a little Academy-Award style of publicity. That goes against the grain of most engineers I know, but in a world of hyped media, the person who speaks quietly in a normal tone of voice is simply not heard.

Well, I’ve gone on too long with some half-baked ideas on how to make engineering a more prestigious activity in the U. S. In the long run, though, it will be determined by those who take our place, the next generation, and I just hope that they look upon our profession with more respect than it has received recently.

Sources: The Duke University report “Where The Engineers Are” can be downloaded at and was published in the Spring 2007 issue of Issues in Science and Technology. I obtained the information on a Gallup poll of most trusted professions from a news report from 2009 at

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