The alarm has sounded. Even in this tough economic period, companies are concerned about a limited ability to hire more researchers to develop the technologies upon which the next generations of new products will be based. According to many executives and educators, U.S. universities aren't graduating enough engineers to meet the growing R&D needs of the U.S. electronics industry. So who will do the research?
Universities outside the U.S. have been steadily increasing the number of engineering students they graduate. Many of those engineers are seeking exciting opportunities in the U.S. to work on leading-edge projects.
This opportunity for work in the U.S. has resulted in an overwhelming number of requests for temporary and permanent visas, both from companies looking for engineering talent and by the engineers seeking job opportunities their home countries can't provide. Some of the reverse is true too. A walk through research labs at companies headquartered in Japan and across Europe reveals a few U.S. citizens conducting R&D there. But the large number of engineers trying to enter the U.S. has caused the U.S. government to limit the number of visas distributed. Those limits have been extended due to the complaints of many company executives that there aren't enough qualified job candidates in the U.S.
Thus, companies are supplementing their domestic R&D departments with a diverse collection of global talent. When the talent couldn't come to the U.S., a considerable number of U.S. companies opened modest research and product development centers in other countries. This lets them take advantage of the talent and the lower overhead costs. Sometimes, time-zone differences have helped too, allowing projects to be worked on nonstop by handing off the work, so that the end of one day lines up with the beginning of another in the next R&D location.
But what happens with engineers brought into the U.S. when their visas expire? Many will probably return to their home countries. A good percentage will try to remain in the U.S., either by extending their visas, becoming U.S. citizens, or staying illegally. For the companies that sponsored these engineers, the expiration of the visas may mean disrupting leading-edge research teams and letting the ideas that the researchers carry germinate in other countries and companies
However, thanks to the Internet, dividing up research teams isn't as devastating as it was a decade ago. Collaboration tools, e-mail, and video conferencing may replace the walk to the next cubicle as research takes place on a global scale.
This still doesn't really address the first concern of many executives in the U.S.—how do we increase the number of new engineers that graduate from U.S. universities? Are enough potential engineers entering educational institutions, or has engineering lost its appeal? What do you think?