Keeping U.S Leadership In Engineering

One key is training students to think globally.

April 10 2006 by Pradeep Kholsa

There is a lot of buzz these days around words such as outsourcing, innovation, competitiveness and globalization. A lack of engineers and security restrictions are generating buzz as well. The general tone is that outsourcing and security restrictions are hurting innovation and resulting in lost jobs, and visa restrictions are causing a sharp decline in the foreign student population at U.S. universities. This, so the argument goes, is causing the U.S. to fall behind in innovation and creating a shortage of engineering talent as a higher percentage of foreign students educated here go back home.

Another part of the concern has to do with sheer numbers. A decade ago, close to 40 percent of total engineering work hours were based in the U.S. Current predictions are that by 2010, only about 10 percent of those work hours will be in the U.S. The reasons are that India and China are graduating 10 times more engineers per year than the U.S., and the cost of an engineering work hour there is about 20 percent of that in the U.S.

But based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I believe that, while more students may be going back home, the absolute numbers are not large enough to be concerned about. The U.S. still has advantages that most countries don’t. In addition, whatever work is sent offshore, higher skilled work will remain stateside, thereby ramping up U.S. worker skill levels and continuing to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

While it is in our interest to convince youth in this country to pursue careers in science and engineering, I do not believe that just increasing the number of engineering graduates will sharpen our competitive edge. We have to develop that advantage, which is our ability to manage the global process of innovation.

To do that, we need to rethink our undergraduate education in engineering, while maintaining our research infrastructure and culture at universities. The U.S. can still boast that its research enterprise is the best in the world. It has been based on federal and industry investments in universities, and the availability of graduate students to perform cutting- edge research.

To maintain this advantage, we must invest more in research and development and, therefore, in graduate education. We must develop avenues that enable talented foreign engineers and scientists to leverage their knowledge with U.S. industry. This will require a new relationship between universities and industry.Universities must find ways to become the research and development arm of industry. To do this, we must rethink our intellectual property policies vis-à-vis industry.

Curriculum changes also are important. At Carnegie Mellon, we are now developing a curriculum, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, that will allow students to enable, manage and deploy innovation in a multilingual, multicultural and multinational environment while maintaining excellence in technical education. I call this the Carnegie Plan for a “Flat World.” Every business has had to face the challenges of globalization and alter its way of doing business. Universities have failed to respond to those global pressures. This is the real threat to U.S. leadership in innovation.

American universities must develop the flexibility to operate beyond their campus borders so as to engage today’s global enterprises and the brightest young minds around the world. Deploying such a plan will enhance our comparative advantage. Even if the U.S. has a smaller percentage of the world’s engineers, it will be able to compete because its engineers will be the managers of complex global interactions. In the final analysis, it’s the quality of engineer that counts, not the quantity.