It’s a mantra among politicians and CEOs across the Midwest and the country: we need to graduate more engineers in order to stay competitive in the world economy. It’s pitched as a way to create jobs and innovation. But all that might be wrong.
Joseph Bersuder, Marcus Grimm, and Cameron Close are days away from starting their engineering careers. The three are graduating from the University of Akron and hearing them talk, it’s almost like: “what economic crisis?”
Bersuder is going to work at a company constructing wastewater treatment plants. Grimm took a position with BP in Houston. And, Close accepted a job at a local green energy startup.
The money’s not bad either. From salaries in the $50,000 range to Grimm’s “Upper 70s, with five-figure signing bonus.”
To many politicians and CEOs, these guys are just what America needs.
President Obama has made it a major policy.
“We’re announcing an all hands on deck strategy to train 10,000 new American engineers each year,” he said last year at an advanced lighting company.
The conventional wisdom is that more engineers will lead to more innovation and help create the so-called jobs of tomorrow. But when Hal Salzman heard that from the President, he had a very different reaction: disbelief.
Salzman is a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He’s been looking at the job market for engineers for years now, and he says despite all the fears out there of a shortage, and falling behind other countries, the US graduates plenty of engineers each year—more than are hired. And, of course, not all of them want to work directly in the field. So, why work so hard to create more?
“What are these engineers going to do?” he said. “If you produce more engineers, and we’re only hiring now maybe 50-60% of the engineers who graduate each year, where are they going to go? What kind of jobs? Are they supposed to sit around and wait until the economy improves?”
Salzman says hoping more engineers would help the economy is kind of like saying building more cars would help the auto industry. Instead, he says, the market does a pretty good job in this field. For instance, an oil boom in recent years has increased demand for petroleum engineers.
“The response is just what you’d expect out of Econ 101, which is: salaries went up and almost immediately the number of graduates increased,” Salzman said.
Salzman doesn’t disagree that engineering can be a good job, and he says graduates landing lots of jobs is exactly what we want. In recent years, the unemployment rate among engineers is about half the national average. But adding 10,000 more to the pool, he says, could make it harder to find work, and drive down wages. Already, many of the best and brightest students are attracted to higher-paid Wall Street or consulting careers.
What about the idea that America needs more engineers to compete globally? Salzman doesn’t buy that either. He says only a small percentage of engineers are involved in anything that could be as classified innovation. Most are building things like bridges or roads.
“Last I looked, those were not sectors that are booming,” he said.
At the same time, much of the engineering we do need is being outsourced. Even large portions of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge were designed and built in China and shipped to the US.
But Charles Vest thinks this this view is short sighted. For years, he was President of MIT. Today, he heads the National Academy of Engineering. He says we can’t predict the inventions that will create demand for engineers down the line, like the computer revolution did a generation ago.
“I don’t know that increasing the production of engineers tomorrow is going to immediately help turn the economy around,” Vest said. “But I do think it will orient our talent base to the kinds of jobs that are going to be there in the future and the people who will create those jobs.”
And, back in Akron, Joseph Bersuder, Marcus Grimm, and Cameron Close, the three engineering students, say they and their peers found plenty of offers in engineering.
“At the end of my job search, I probably turned away six or seven interviews,” Close said.
The question is, if we had more engineers, like the President and so many advocate, would that still be the case?