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Report of EE shortage stirs 'boom-or-bust' debate

Posted: 22 Jul 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:engineer? computer scientist? electrical? electronics?

A call for cranking up the number of engineering grads just as U.S. EEs are facing the worst employment picture in years sparked a pitched debate over engineering supply and demand. Educators defended the need to turn out more homegrown graduates while practicing engineers objected on the grounds that such efforts would create an overabundance of technical talent.

Observers on both sides agreed that the debate reflects a glaring inability of the American educational system to effectively teach science and math. The shortcomings of the educational system, they said, have caused a persistent boom-and-bust cycle, characterized by engineering shortages, widespread importing of technical talent and layoffs.

"The clarion cry from industry is for the United States to make a major push to increase interest in engineering among young people," said Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. "Other countries have emphasized science and math more than the U.S. has, and it shows at times like these."

Many engineers vigorously objected to the prospect of American universities producing more engineering graduates, however, because they believe such efforts would result in an oversupply that would further diminish the market value of engineers. Reacting to parallel stories in EE Times Monday (July 15) about shortages and layoffs, readers repeatedly raised questions about the value of the H-1B visa program, which has flooded the market with imported engineers.

"This is happening because the industry is importing cheaper foreign labor," wrote Joe Kraska, a computer scientist from San Diego. "Terminate the H-1B program, and this problem will solve itself."

Industry experts agreed that American companies have reached a point in the boom-and-bust cycle that calls for them to once again shut off the foreign spigot. "The correct answer is to quickly cut off the H-1B visas because we don't need them anymore," said Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education in Washington. "We first need to make sure our own citizens have jobs."

Huband's comments fell into lockstep with the efforts of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which petitioned Congress recently to rethink the H-1B visa program and also decried corporate attitudes that turn engineers into just another commodity.

Short-term solution

Still, industry experts reiterated the belief that the problem runs deeper than the H-1B visa program. "The reason we increased H-1B visa programs is because American companies couldn't find technical professionals to do the jobs that needed to be done," Huband said. "And the reason we needed the short-term H-1B program in the first place was because we don't produce enough engineers in this country."

Streetman said that the United States imported 90,000 engineers and computer scientists in 2000, while graduating 65,000 engineers and 15,000 computer scientists.

Many major corporations would leave the country if they were unable to find sufficient technical talent, he said. "If you couldn't import enough engineers to meet the needs of industry, the results could be disastrous," Streetman said. "Companies have told Congress, 'We're going to hire foreign talent. The question is whether we're going to hire it here or move abroad."

Educators point out, however, that the need for an intermittent influx of foreign talent is a phenomenon that's not common to many other professions, such as law or accounting. "It happens to some degree in medicine, but not nearly to the extent that it happens in engineering," Streetman said.

Because U.S. schools trail their counterparts in other countries in the teaching of math and science, engineering deans say that American students shy away from engineering. And among those who do choose engineering as a major field of study, more than half eventually flunk out or leave. The attrition rate, combined with the general lack of interest in engineering among high school students, results in a shortage whenever the economy begins to soar, educators said.

Many engineers who sounded off last week identified the educational system as a prime culprit. "The biggest problem is with the public high school system here," said Jaime Chu, a software engineer from Wheaton, Ill. "There simply is no system to support gifted students who want to go in the engineering field to nurture interest in technology."

Corporate distrust

Still, an equal number were distrustful of many corporations that cry of shortages, believing instead that such companies derive a benefit from hiring imported engineers. "If foreign engineers are less expensive than 'homegrown' engineers, U.S. companies will hire as many as the government will allow," said Foster White of Research Triangle Park, N.C., in a typical assessment.

Huband of the American Society for Engineering Education agreed that, when it comes to H-1B visas, the motives of some corporations may not always be in the best interest of American workers or the country. "There's a legitimate gripe on the part of American engineers that employers will keep their good-quality non-U.S. visa people longer than they keep their U.S. people because they can get them for less," he said. "Some manufacturers would like to see engineers work for $5 per hour. Their attitude is, the more the better."

Employers argued last week, however, that the image of cheap foreign labor is often exaggerated. Pay scales, most say, are the same whether an engineer is from India, China or the United States, and treating EEs differently would eventually cause human-resource problems. Furthermore, most said they prefer to hire U.S. citizens over foreign counterparts because H-1B visas sometimes lead to legal expenditures. Also, imported engineers are more likely to have language problems and other cultural difficulties, they said.

"In general, we hire the best candidate for the job," said Ray Almgren, vice president of product strategy for National Instruments a manufacturer of test and control systems. "But if two candidates are identical, we will probably opt for the American citizen."

Industry observers say that the practice of regularly hiring U.S. citizens would be preferable to the current practice of intermittently turning on and off the flow of imported engineers. "We don't know what the loyalties of some foreign engineers are, and we don't know how long they will be here," Huband said. "It's healthier for our society if critical employees, such as engineers, are people whose primary loyalty is to the United States."

This is a luxury that is not always available, however, if U.S. universities fail to attract and graduate enough engineering students, educators said.

Moreover, educators warned that the time will come when China, India, South Korea and Russia will jump-start their own economies, and engineers from those countries will opt to stay home, rather than looking for jobs in the United States.

For that reason, educators encouraged engineers to take a long-term view of the educational dilemma and the current economy. "You shouldn't focus on what's happening this year, because it's an aberration," Streetman said. "If you look over the next 20 years, the need for engineers will be there, and we'd like to fill those needs with people who are going to stay in this country."

? Charles J. Murray

EE Times





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