July 2008

Engineering education in U.S. considers changes

By Ellen Fussell Policastro

With off-shoring and outsourcing making waves in today's technology, software programmers and engineers are trying to figure out if their jobs are safe. Others are dropping out of the professions altogether and searching for alternative careers. Some are even forming unions to protect themselves from off-shore competition. Even educators are examining how the new trends will affect their students' job prospects.

"Enrollments and even applications for enrollment have dropped precipitously in electrical engineering and computer science, the two technology disciplines that have been among the first to move overseas," said Ron Hira, assistant professor, Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, N.Y. and Anil Hira, international economic development specialist and professor of political science in Latin American studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, in their book, Outsourcing America.

As engineering and computer science educators grapple with the realities of off-shoring and offshore outsourcing, it is less clear what education in other at-risk fields are doing, they said. Engineering educators in the U.S. are considering changes to the curricula to ensure their graduates are employable. Their ideas include adding courses that emphasize team work, such as management and leadership, and teaching technical skills that cannot be easily compartmentalized and outsourced.

"Most economists agree that because of increased off-shoring, the U.S. will have a different set of occupations. That means certain occupations will disappear altogether and others will change significantly," they said.

Researchers crunch fuzzy numbers

In their research paper, "Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate: Comparing the Quantity and Quality of Engineering Graduates in the United States, India, and China," Duke professor of sociology, Gary Gereffi, director at the Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness; Vivek Wadhwa, and Ben Rissing, both of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, said interviews with students, faculty, and colleagues revealed rising undergraduate engineers had real concerns regarding the possibility of having their engineering jobs outsourced in the future. "Engineering students wanted to know what jobs were outsourcing-proof and what coursework or practical experiences would better prepare them for a more global working environment. Some engineering students saw more opportunity and expected better starting salaries in non-engineering fields," they said.

The researchers assembled a multidisciplinary team of domestic and international engineering students at Duke University to identify the number of four-year engineering bachelors degrees awarded in China, India, and the U.S. They wanted to study how these graduation profiles have changed with time. The research showed the commonly cited statistics for these countries were incorrect.

The Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) and the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) in India represent sources of engineering graduation data within their respective countries. "Yet the statistics released by these organization have included not only four-year degrees, but also three-year degrees and diploma holders," they said. They compared the numbers against the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees in the U.S. "In some cases, these exaggerated numbers included not only individuals in traditional engineering disciplines, but information technology specialists and technicians," they said.

Postdocs gain popularity

The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology reported in the May/June 2008 issue that postdoctoral degrees are becoming more common as stepping stones in science and engineering career paths. The National Science Foundation released data from the 2006 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, a sample survey of over 40,000 persons who earned their doctorate in science, engineering, or health (SEH) from a U.S. university and still lived in the U.S. in April 2006 when the survey was conducted.

Of the most recent Ph.D. graduates-defined as those who earned their degrees within the five years preceding the survey data-45% had held a postdoc appointment, up from 39% for the next older cohort (those who were 5-10 years after the doctorate award).

The percent of recent Ph.D. graduates who had a postdoc position was highest for those who earned doctorates in the life sciences and the physical sciences (59%). However, the postdoc participation rate for engineering significantly increased to 31% for recent computer sciences/mathematics Ph.D.s, up from a rate of 22% for the next older five-year cohort of Ph.D. recipients.

The major reasons for taking a postdoc included to gain additional training in the doctoral field (34%), followed by working with a specific person or place (19%), and general expectations of a postdoc for a career in this field (19%). The primary reason noted for 23% of engineering doctorate recipients was other employment was not available. This proportion was much higher than the reasons for those earning doctorates in other fields.

SOURCE: Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology Analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics household data, annual averages.