Once famous for its endless creativity and ability to invent superior high-technology products, the United States is falling behind the rest of the world. Thanks to the growing globalization of the world's economy and improvements in China, India, and Russia, the U.S. is gradually losing its lead in creating innovative new products and services.
Maybe the other countries are just catching up. Regardless, they're breathing down our necks, and it won't be long before we fall to second place or lower. Our complacent attitude is scaring the daylights out of the U.S.'s high-tech companies as they try to stay in the race. But without the necessary highly educated workforce and the federal funding for R&D to support high-tech growth, we may lose our exalted position.
We've blithely taken our leadership for granted for a long time. Yet it won't be long before we begin to lose our economic clout, affecting every one of us in the U.S. It's time to do something about reversing this decline. Can engineering education help? Yes, but it can only go so far. The real solution is up to all of us.
Not Enough Engineers
The American Electronics Association's 2005 report, "Losing the Competitive Advantage? The Challenge for Science And Technology in the United States," says it all. The U.S. economy, which is the envy of the world in creating new products and technology, is slipping.
Offshoring of manufacturing and outsourcing of technical talent are only symptoms of the bigger picture caused by a dramatically shifting global economy. Various reforms are changing the economies of other countries and making them far more competitive than they were in the past. These countries are adopting and using technology to enhance their economic growth and competitiveness.
On top of that, U.S. federally funded technology R&D has been declining for almost two decades (Fig. 1). The heavy funding of the 20th century was largely responsible for the innovation of the past because it invested in the technologies that advanced our society. And finally, add to this the U.S.'s inability to produce a sufficient number of scientists and engineers who are needed to support future growth. This has led to the increased use of foreign nationals to staff our high-tech companies. Now, current immigration policies are restricting even that resource.
The U.S. needs a Sputink scare that will motivate the nation to act as we did in the late 1950s and early 1960s. President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon funded a decade of R&D and drove the electronics industry for years after the Apollo project was over.
Our system of higher education is in place and very competent. Our institutions of higher learning are among the best in the world, but they haven't been able to produce a sufficient number of scientists and engineers to meet the needs of the industry (Fig. 2). Enrollments and graduation rates b oth are cyclical. Currently, enrollments and the number of degrees awarded are flat. (For more information, see www.aaes.org.)
The lack of a sufficient number of graduates isn't the fault of the institutions themselves. Clearly, there is a monumental lack of interest in science and technology among our nation's youth. High school kids who have the potential to become great engineers and scientists use lots of high tech. Virtually all of them have PCs, cell phones, music players, TVs, video games, and lots of other gadgets. They love to use them, but they have no interest in designing them. The big question is why. The jobs are there, and they pay exceptionally well.
In the meantime, many high schools and colleges offer summer camps in cooperation with local colleges and universities to demonstrate the exciting nature of engineering. Lecture series and other events like the Edison Project (www.edisonlectureseries.org) seek to motivate middle and high school students to stay in school and pursue careers in a technology field.
The Junior Engineering Technical Society (www.jets.org) has been working for years to increase interest in and awareness of engineering and technology careers with student competitions, assessment tools, career guidance resources, a newsletter, and materials for parents, teachers, and counselors. The Engineering Education Service Center (www.engineeringedu.com) provides consulting, publications, workshops, and presentations for teachers and counselors to promote engineering in grades K-16. These efforts have has some success, but not enough.
AeA president William Archey testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Worksforce in early May. He indicated that while the total number of high-tech jobs today lags behind 1999's total, the number began increasing again in 2004. It then jumped by 61,000 new technology jobs in 2005; the number of jobs would have been even larger if more skilled labor was available. This lack of qualified workers stymies high-tech job growth. Many large companies have thousands of unfilled jobs in the U.S.
"We need to address this critical shortage of homegrown high-skilled talent. America can certainly compete. It has the flexibility, pioneering spirit, and capital to win the race," Archey said. "But to do this, America needs to recognize that future innovation is not predetermined to occur in the United States."
Archey went on to say that "this is not only about the future of the U.S. tech industry, but about our children's future. It is their jobs, their prosperity, and their standard of living that are at stake." For more details on the AeA's reports, go to www.aeanet.org.
Solving The Manpower Shortage
Enrollments in college engineering and technology programs are flat to down. While the top engineering schools are still doing well, most in general are seeing a steady decline in enrollments. As a result, graduation rates are also down. The U.S. graduates considerably fewer engineers annually than China, India, and other large countries.
The answer to this problem isn't easy. The long-term solution would be to enact policies and practices that will boost our youth's interest in science and technology by greater coverage in the K-12 curriculum and to promote high-tech jobs nationally. Meanwhile, some short-term fixes are available.
First, use older workers. Instead of laying off and retiring older engineers, preserve their education and experience and repurpose it. Most older engineers don't necessarily want to retire early anyway. We're living longer these days, and many cannot afford to retire. While some retraining may be required, it's a better approach than going without needed workers. To stay competitive in the job market, engineers must invest in some form of continuing education to ensure the currency of their knowledge and skills.
Second, let technology education graduates play a greater role. While most engineering jobs go to BSEE graduates, many of those jobs could be filled by graduates with a bachelor's degree in technology. Bachelor of science of engineering technology (BSET) graduates take nearly the same math and science as engineering graduates, but their technical education is more practical and applied rather than heavy on analysis and design.
Yet these graduates can design. The technology programs are more lab/hands-on than most engineering programs, so technology graduates tend to hit the ground running faster than their engineering classmates. Many BSEE graduates are underused anyway. Plenty of jobs have a BSEE degree prerequisite, thanks to HR policies, but the jobs often never use the knowledge and skill that the graduates have.
Why not pass these jobs along to BSET graduates? While many BSET graduates get jobs as engineers anyway, let that number rise to fill key openings in practical applied engineering jobs while pushing the BSEE graduates forward to higher-level degrees and more demanding work.
And don't forget the AAS degree technology graduates. These individuals are trained as technicians, but they're far more qualified to do some kinds of engineering work than most employers realize. Most companies are blind to these possibilities, and are only hurting themselves by ignoring the technology graduates we do have. Hiring managers and HR personnel should broaden their view by looking more closely at the untapped technology education resources.
Third, support immigration reform. Contact your congressman and senators and press for legislation that improves our immigration policy. While most Americans want to seal our borders to illegal immigration, most Americans aren't opposed to legal immigration that leads to improved technological competence and economic growth. Senator John Cornyn (R) of Texas recently introduced a new bill to reform H-1B and green card systems that will help foreign nationals to come into and stay in the U.S., thereby increasing the competitiveness of U. S. firms and spurring growth.
All electronic engineers must engage in some form of continuing education if they intend to stay competent and grow in the profession. As an engineer, you live or die by what you know. Success in electronics is achieved by knowing the latest technology and applying it to provide benefits and value to your customers and profits to your employer.
In 2003, I wrote a similar article for Electronic Design ("To Step Up Your Career, You've Got To Keep Learning," Oct. 13, 2003, p. 43). Back then, I said, "If you're not involved in some form of continuing education, then you are doomed to suffer the consequences of ignorance, peer contempt, technological obsolescence and eventual obscurity... and then you retire early." Things haven't changed. So what are you doing about it?
How do engineers get their continuing education? They read magazines and buy books when they can find them. Conferences provide updates, but prices and travel expenses have increased, making them a luxury for many. Some organizations offer seminars and workshops, but they can be too expensive for the average engineer as well.
Many engineers pursue advanced degrees, though their cost has skyrocketed in the past couple of years while employers have cut back on tuition benefits. Online degree programs are growing, and even many top universities make master's degrees available via the Web.
These online programs are great if you don't have a local university or your schedule can't accommodate in-person classroom time. Sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education, www.learnon.org lists many such programs. National Technological University, www.ntu.edu, also offers distance learning master's degrees.
Engineers seem to get lots of their new information through webinars, which are fast, inexpensive, and practical. And, they're appearing with greater frequency. While many of them are sponsored by companies looking to push their lastest products, they still offer state-of-the-art information in between the promotional plugs. Electronic Design sponsors a number of webinars (see the Webcasts page at www.electronicdesign.com). IEEE also provides sessions at www.ieee.org.
For most engineers, continuing education is all about self-learning. Having gone through tough college programs, engineers already have the discipline to tackle these topics on their own. Many engineers have even asked why they should pay for a course, seminar, or other formal program when they can learn things on their own. The Internet provides resources on just about every subject, and books and magazines can fill in the gaps.
For more, see interviews with Anthony Ambler, Department Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin at ED Online 12877 and with Dr. Albert McHenry, Dean of Applied Science and Technology at Arizona State University, at ED Online 12878 at www.electronicdesign.com.