Industry Market Trends

Drowning By Numbers: Engineering in China, India, U.S.

May 25, 2006

Ninety-nine percent of statistics are inaccurate, right? Some numbers that have been receiving a lot of attention of late, we've come to realize, belong in that proverbial majority; U.S. engineers are reported as holding their own compared with counterparts in China and India.

India's and China's educational systems are known for producing many, MANY engineers, and these educational systems often are considered to be slowly but steadily overtaking the U.S. in technological leadership. But that may not be the case, says a controversial Duke University study that contradicts the assumption that China and India are leagues ahead of the U.S. in engineering graduates.

A Duke study entitled "Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate" last December pointed out that engineers are defined differently in different places. Those differences give the impression that foreign colleges are graduating more engineers, as measured by U.S. standards, than they really are.

And Duke University testimony presented to Congress' Committee on Education and the Workforce this month supports its recent study, saying that U.S. engineers are holding their own compared with their Chinese and Indian counterparts. At least, for now they are.

The stats 600,000, 350,000 and 70,000 are supposedly the number of engineers produced in 2004 in China, India and the United States, respectively. According to the perception gleaned via these numbers, we're losing our competitive edge.

Then again, as noted 19th century novelist and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, there are three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

The aforementioned numbers attained what appeared to be impeccable credibility when they were featured in a press release last October about a new report from the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, a joint group from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine (which, with the National Research Council, are collectively known as the National Academies), notes the Washington Post. The academies titled the 543-page report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" (an allusion to Winston Churchill's book "The Gathering Storm," about events leading up to World War II). So, given such loftiness, the numbers were picked up by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and vast other sources.

The numbers first drew major notice when they appeared in a Fortune magazine story on July 25, 2005. Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik sought the original source of these stats and found the most likely origin for the 600,000 Chinese engineers was a 2002 speech by Ray Bingham, then-chief executive of a semiconductor company. While Bialik couldn't find any obvious birthplace for the Indian figures, National Science Foundation analysts told him the number was unlikely to be anywhere near 350,000. Meanwhile, a McKinsey Global Institute report had cast doubt on the quality of the Chinese engineering graduates, so Bialik reasoned that removing unqualified candidates would obviously reduce the total.

The numbers don't work in apples-to-apples comparisons, says Vivek Wadhwa, executive-in-residence and adjunct engineering professor at Duke, in an EE Times article this week. China and India include graduates of two- and three-year programs in their statistics. Further, particularly in China, the term "engineer" is used more loosely than in the U.S.

The Chinese government-issued 2004 China Statistical Yearbook reports 644,000 engineering graduates that year. Yet the yearbook merely assembled the numbers sent by provincial governments. This means two things: the accuracy of these provincial reports is unknown, and it remains foggy whether the provinces shared common definitions — the word "engineer" does not translate easily into many Chinese dialects.

In fact, according to the Washington Post, about half of what China calls "engineers" would be called "technicians" at best in the U.S., with the equivalent of a vocational certificate or an associate degree.

Says EE Times:

Looking at all computer science and information technology degrees from four-year schools in 2004, Duke originally came up with 137,437 engineering graduates for the U.S., compared with 112,000 for India and 351,537 for China. When a visiting Chinese scholar told researchers the actual numbers were much higher, they directly contacted 200 of the 400 Chinese engineering schools to get a clearer picture. Most couldn't give detailed information.

The 30 larger universities that provided 2004 data said they had a total of 29,205 graduates in fields they classified as engineering. The only clear conclusion reached was that Chinese engineering numbers are increasing, Wadhwa said.

But this is simply picking at words. Bigger issues remain neglected in our narrowly focusing on graduation rates.

Consider quality. While China may be producing more engineers in order to keep up with its growing economy, it is doing so with a factory-like approach.

A McKinsey study of nine occupations, including engineering, concluded that "fewer than 10 percent of Chinese job candidates, on average, would be suitable for work [in a multinational company] in the nine occupations we studied."

So after an exhaustive study, researchers at Duke University pummeled the numbers. In their December '05 analysis, they reported that the U.S. annually produces 137,437 engineers with at least a bachelor's degree while India produces 112,000 and China 351,537 — that is more U.S. degrees per million residents than in either other nation.

Yet, while the National Academies replaced the erroneous numbers with the numbers from Duke, many researchers are standing by their original conclusion that the U.S. is well behind other countries.

Are we? Aren't we? You tell us.