Thursday, October 27, 2005
previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)
Anoint no economic superpower before its time
A common lament among those who like to prognosticate about America's future is that China and India are churning out more and better engineering students than the U.S., which presages their rise to superpowerdom.
Sounds ominous -- those figures were cited in a National Academy of Sciences study warning that, "In a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode." (link via Glenn Reynolds)
The thing is, those numbers don't hold up. Back in August, Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy" column deconstructed Colvin's claim in Fortune and found some problems:
Kudos to Hira and Freeman for their intellectual honesty -- both of them are generally concerned about the effects in the U.S. of widening the global supply of educated labor.
[OK, so the number isn't as big as previously thought. It's still pretty big, right?--ed. This gets to the question of quality. Diana Farrell and Andrew J. Grant write in the latest McKinsey Quarterly that the quality problem could lead to a talent shortage in China:
UPDATE: Howard French has a nicely balanced account in the New York Times of China's effort to upgrade its top universities in order to attract top-drawer talent. The highlights:
French also provides his own engineering numbers: "In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's."posted by Dan on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM
Well, the numbers may not be too far off the mark. When I was graduating high school (1993), the state I lived in in India had an entrance test for engineering admissions. It announced about 20,000 ranks, to fill a corresponding number of seats. If one projects these figures throughout the country would be about 150,000 in 1993. I think the capacity has grown since.
However, the question of quality is legitimate. Indian colleges are not very well funded in comparison to American universities, and there is quite tremendous variation in their quality. However, I get the impression that there have been improvements in this regard.
Finally, while quality may be an issue, I think a comparison of the American workforce with the pool in India is not entirely valid. The economies of the two countries are in different stages of development, and consequently technological needs also vary. In addition, the US has built up tremendous capacity in terms of manpower and trained talent over the last 100 years. I don't think either India or China have this level of technological depth. Consequently talk of competition in cutting edge technology is somewhat premature. I also think that the higher education market in India is predominantly market driven, so marked changes in quality of the bulk workforce will need to be driven by a demand for the same.posted by: vin on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Whatever the numbers actually are there’s a conceptual problem here. Manufacturing (where you employ engineers) is shrinking as a percentage not just of US or European GDP but as a percentage of world GDP. It’s simply becoming less important all round.
"Compared with engineering graduates in Europe and North America, who work in teams to achieve practical solutions,"
Suppose the scary numbers are right, not wrong - how's that bad for the US?
If a Chinese engineer invents a room temperature superconductor, or an Indian one finds a cure for cancer, then I win big time, even thought I'm an American.
This is just intellectual mercantilism, and it's as wrong today as it was back in the gold dubloon era 200 years ago.posted by: Jos Bleau on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Been there, done that. If you go back to the 1970s into the 1980s, the Soviets were going to overwhelm the west not because their political system was better, but rather because they were training so many more engineers, mathematicians and scientists.
And they were. But they weren't. The level of qualification was significantly lower (not on paper, but in reality: engineers that rote-learned their trade, rather than learning how to solve problems) and as a result the productivity was also significantly lower. Couple that with the fact that the system more or less conspired to prevent productive work, and you know why the "threat" dissapated.
That's not to say that the US produces "enough" engineers, mathematicians and scientists: it doesn't. But holding up a foreign threat to try to motivate increasing spending levels is fairly weak: it'd be a lot better of you argue for domestic reasons.
Johnposted by: John F. Opie on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Don't the comments above miss the point? One would expect emerging powers with rapidly growing economies to start producing more engineers (among other things). I suppose one might expect as well that the quality of their education and training would vary somewhat. But this will change, and we couldn't do anything about it even if we wanted to.
The thing we could do something about is the number of new Americans engineers. Is that figure of 70,000 accurate? Is that enough? Are new American engineers educated and trained better than their foreign counterparts? If the latter two questions are answered in the negative, what needs to be done in response?posted by: Zathras on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
There's also the question of demand. China is arguably at an engineering-intensive stage of development right now (especially civil engineering and electrical power engineering) because so much infrastructure needs to be build. Each new bridge, each new railroad spur, each new powerplant, are all going to require engineering talent.
Yes, we have infrastructure issues here, too, but nothing, I suspect, like China does.posted by: David Foster on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Graduate students from China and India out number Americans in American universities. I'm not saying thats a bad thing, but if you're going to look at differences in education you might want to look at those numbers too.posted by: publius on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Another issue: Chinese universities outside of a few general universities (BeiDa, Fudan in Shanghai) are often very tightly focused: they have shipbuilding universities, "transportation" (Jiao Tong) universities, political science universities, aerospace universities, foreign language universities, etc. The result of this is a very narrow and specialized degree that is inevitably several years out of date.
Courses of study are completely scripted, with few or no electives, and due to funding problems, students rarely get to do much work in labs. There are frequently no general education requirements outside the major, so - for example - it is very rare for engineers to have any background in economics beyond the Marxist silliness they learned in high school.posted by: Foobarista on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
I don't know why everyone asserts the US doesn't graduate "enough" engineers. If so, wouldn't salaries rise to compensate?
I'm an engineer, and I don't understand how we got infantilized like farmers. The US dominates most sciences with fewer and fewer resources. How is that a bad thing?posted by: Michael Karam on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
While I do see China as a major strategic competitor to the status-quo powers (mainly US & EU), some things (like the graduate student situation) seem slightly overblown, at least for now.
Check out Econobrowser, which points out some doubts to China's latest GDP Growth numbers.posted by: StrategyUnit on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
The biggest threat from the Chinese is that they have no need or much desire to follow any rules.
Intellectual property - steal it.
Worker protectiontions - ignore them.
Currency manipulation - absolutely.
Rule of law - for someone else.posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
The real measure is not the diplomas, but were those "graduates" are at the 5-yr and 10-yr-mark in their careers. A "graduate engineer" manning a fast-food counter, or a manufacturing-plant machine-tool is not an "engineer" to the National Economy. In my own profession, less than 10% of the declared college majors are still in the profession even 5-ys out of school. Many never even complete their major, but transfer to other disciplines. And less than 15% of the actual graduates are still in the profession after 10-years.posted by: Ted B. on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
For once I agree with save_the_rustbeltposted by: John Kneeland on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
There is one thing that I do find significantly worrying:
Much like in the international security field, the "solution" of the economist field seems content to say something along the lines of "Okay, look, it's not a problem RIGHT NOW" and leave the argument at that...the implicit logic seems to be "wait til it IS a problem and THEN worry about it..." Can't we be a bit proactive on this?posted by: John Kneeland on 10.27.05 at 06:22 PM [permalink]
Post a Comment: