Commentary: More engineers needed in U.S., Latin America

The Miami HeraldNovember 21, 2012 

OPPENHEIMER ANDRES MCT

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

AL DIAZ — MCT/Miami Herald

When Xi Jinping was appointed China’s new leader last week, one of the things that caught my attention about his resume is that he’s an engineer. More exactly, that he is an engineer who has replaced another engineer as leader of the world’s most populous country.

In the West, most of our presidents are attorneys, who — granted — in most cases have great speaking skills.

U.S. President Barack Obama is a Harvard attorney, who was recently reelected for a new four-year term after defeating Mitt Romney, another Harvard attorney. Mexican President Felipe Calderón is an attorney, who will be replaced Dec. 1 by Enrique Peña Nieto, another attorney.

Spain is also ruled by an attorney who replaced another attorney. In South America, although there are growing numbers of economists, retired military officers and former guerrillas in the presidency, attorneys have long been in charge of most countries.

China’s new leader, Xi, is a chemical engineer who was appointed at last week’s 18th Communist Party National Congress to replace Hu Jintao, a hydraulic engineer. Hu, in turn, replaced president Jiang Zemin, an electrical engineer.

Why is this interesting? Not because we should accept any stereotypes — such as that engineers solve problems while attorneys dwell on them, or that engineers make better presidents, which is not always the case - but because it reflects the fact that engineering is much more popular in China and other Asian countries than in the West.

And it’s no secret that in the current knowledge-based global economy, where patents of new inventions generate much greater wealth to nations than commodities, engineers and scientists are much more valuable than ever before.

During a trip to China last month, I visited Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s most prestigious schools, and learned that 72 percent of its college and graduate students are enrolled in schools of engineering and hard sciences, while only 28 percent are studying humanities or social sciences.

Overall, while 31 percent of all college degrees in China and 19 percent of college degrees throughout Asia are in engineering, the comparative figure in the United States is of only 5 percent, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. Despite the growth of the U.S. student population in recent decades, the number of engineering graduates has fallen from 97,000 a year in the mid-1980s to 87,000 nowadays, the NSF figures show.

In most Latin American countries, the number of students of humanities and social sciences dwarfs that of engineering students. Last time I counted, the state-run University of Buenos Aires, one of the largest in Latin America, had 29,000 psychology students and 8,000 engineering students — a ratio of more than three psychologists for every engineer.

“In most Western countries, young people would rather go to the dentist than go into engineering. Law, business, and medicine — just about anything but engineering — seem to be the preference of today’s youth,” says Dave Goldberg, a professor emeritus of engineering of the University of Illinois, and head of The Big Beacon movement to transform engineering education.

Goldberg’s recipe: make engineering studies more fun, and more creative.

“We are forcing our students to go to a math-science death march,” he told me. “Instead of starting with the creative part, we start teaching them the abstract stuff, and lose up to 50 percent of the people who enter engineering.”

My opinion: Whenever I write that we should produce more engineers and scientists — and perhaps fewer psychologists — many readers, especially in Latin America, tell me that there is no job market for young engineers. Studying engineering is not worth the effort, because many young engineers end up driving taxis, they say.

But that’s not true. In most Latin American countries, companies complain about the shortage of well-trained engineers.

And the experience of China, India, Taiwan, and other Asian countries shows that producing large numbers of engineers pays off.

Many of these countries started producing large numbers of engineers without worrying too much about whether they would get jobs, and the jobs came afterward. Multinational companies flocked to take advantage of these countries’ critical mass of engineering graduates.

To be sure, neither Xi nor China’s dictatorship should be viewed as political models. But the fact that most of our countries are run by lawyers while rapidly-growing China is run by engineers should serve us as a reminder of the need to produce more engineers, and to make engineering studies more fun.

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