ATLANTA—The United States faces a crisis in engineering—the nucleus of many vital industries—that menaces its economic future.
Pacific Rim nations are graduating great numbers of engineers and threatening to seize the mantle of industrial innovation that was pivotal to making the U.S. economy globally dominant. Last year foreign nationals also won almost 60 percent of American engineering doctorates.
Experts warn that the U.S. lead is slipping away.
"We are being out-produced in engineering graduates—both undergraduate and graduate level—by Pacific Rim countries, and the comparison will be more extreme as the years go by," said Richard Heckel, founder of Engineering Trends, a research consultancy. "From an engineering standpoint, the future leaders of the world are going to come from the Pacific Rim."
Relative to the sizes of their populations, Asian nations such as Taiwan and South Korea are graduating five times as many undergraduate students in engineering as the United States. Engineering Trends did an exhaustive study and determined that the United States ranked 16th per capita in the number of doctoral graduates and 25th in engineering undergraduates per million citizens.
This isn't merely an academic problem. It affects virtually every engineering specialty in society beyond the civil and structural designers who build roads and bridges, including chemical, petroleum, industrial and especially electrical and computer engineering.
In such fields U.S. companies have designed everything from spray cans to the space shuttle. Historically, Americans have prided themselves on ingenuity and innovation. If America slides in engineering, it'll lose a competitive economic advantage along with part of its national identity.
"Our ability to innovate in this country is diminishing. If you look at the number of patents, they are shifting now to other places. Scientific papers that are published, citations—we are clearly losing ground in terms of the competitive stance we've had," said Don Giddens, the dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which ranks among the nation's top five engineering schools.
"I don't think we can risk leaving innovation to other countries and rely on a service-oriented economy. New ideas and new technologies allow companies to get product first out the door," said Lawrence Goldberg, a senior engineering manager at the National Science Foundation, a government agency that helps finance research.
The NSF tries to target resources to developing breakthrough technologies that hold both commercial and scientific applications. But its total research-support budget this year is $4.2 billion, which doesn't go far when the high-tech equipment involved often costs many millions of dollars.
"In the longer term, when you couple the manpower issue in science and engineering with the lack of (federal) investments, we are slipping. There's just no other way you can interpret that," said Giddens, the Georgia Tech engineering dean.
U.S. universities continue awarding more doctoral degrees in engineering than universities anywhere else. But the American Association of Engineering Societies said foreign nationals received 58 percent of the U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering last year: 3,766 degrees out of 6,504. A decade earlier, foreign nationals accounted for less than half of American engineering doctorates.
The growing pool of international talent, experts think, makes engineering a sector that's ripe to move overseas. Wall Street investment banks and large U.S. accounting firms already have shifted many routine jobs abroad. Engineering could follow.
"We are going to have to think more strategically about talent that we took for granted," said Kent Hughes, a researcher for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the author of "Building the Next American Century: The Past and Future of Economic Competitiveness." "Virtually anything that can be done digitally can be done offshore and from anywhere in the world."
The McKinsey Global Institute, a research consultancy, released a detailed study in June that offered hard numbers on the potential for offshoring engineering jobs. It concluded that China has a pool of almost 1.6 million young engineers with less than seven years' experience and India another 528,000. The United States has only 667,000 young engineers, one-third the total of the two rising Asian powers.
McKinsey deemed only 159,000 Chinese and 132,000 Indian engineers qualified to work in multinational companies, but that's still a lot of competition.
It isn't just an issue of transferring jobs overseas; new top-level engineering jobs once created in the United States now are being created abroad. General Electric opened research centers in Shanghai, China, and Bangalore, India, in the last five years.
"A global company like GE needs to have a global presence to be successful. We are going after research talent all over the world," said Todd Alhart, spokesman for GE Global Research in upstate New York.
These trends give cause for worry to the U.S. defense and space programs. Baby-boom generation engineers who've spent their careers in those programs will retire soon, and there aren't enough engineers coming behind them.
Applied Research Associates, a defense contractor specializing in robotics that's based in Albuquerque, N.M., can't find enough engineers with master's or doctoral degrees and U.S. citizenship, the latter required for security clearance.
"We have some (job) postings that have been up there for months," said Ellen Gallegos, the contractor's marketing director.
Like most U.S. engineering schools, Georgia Tech has more research positions available than it has U.S. citizen applicants. The school's president, G. Wayne Clough, participated in a national summit on innovation earlier this year that yielded a battle plan called Innovate America. Its top recommendation was to build the base of scientists and engineers in the United States, identifying them as the nation's key innovation asset.
"The fact is we are going to live in a world where if you go to 2025 and reduce the world's population to 100 people, 56 of those people are going to live in Asia and four of them are going to live in the United States. That's a fact of life," Clough said. "There are going to be big markets outside this country."
Hiren Thacker illustrates these trends. He's 28, from the sprawling Indian city of Calcutta and about to receive his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech in computer and electrical engineering. Until a few years ago, it was assumed that someone like him would seek work in the United States.
Thacker said he was weighing Silicon Valley, but also thinking maybe China or Taiwan. After all, GE—whose slogan is "Imagination at Work"—and other big players are doing research across the Pacific Rim now.
"That's an indication that they're saying they will go elsewhere if need be," Thacker said.
He may go elsewhere too.