US Economy: Engineers Needed! - 2002-01-29

Western Europe produces three times as many engineers each year as the United States. Japan produces almost five times as many. The United States is in the midst of a serious engineer shortage.

Despite the rising U.S. unemployment rate, American industries are posting help wanted ads for about 400,000 engineers.

That is a serious shortfall in today's technology driven economy, especially since analysts estimate that every engineering job generates five to six additional jobs.

Worse yet, Texas Instruments' Vice President Teguin Pulley says, as the need for engineers has increased, the number of U.S. engineering graduates has plummeted.

"In the 1980's we were graduating 25,000 or more bachelors of engineering in the United States, and this last year we graduated a little over 12,000. That is less than half. And the technology industry has grown dramatically over that time," she said.

Geoffrey Orsak, the Director of the Institute for Engineering Education at Southern Methodist University blames U.S. educators for the shortfall.

"Kids across the globe are pretty much the same, so we must be doing something wrong here in the United States if we are not able to attract a higher percentage of kids in engineering," he said.

So Mr. Orzak has launched a project at Southern Methodist University to broaden engineering's appeal for the young, starting as early as elementary school and continuing through secondary school.

The idea, he says, is to give children a first hand sense of the creative things engineers can do. "We have them make their own cell phones from scratch, and the sense of power that you give a 15 year old boy or girl when they're walking around having created their own cell phone and having communicated with someone in that class using the technology is just remarkable. They kind of control their destiny for the first time," he said.

The project is producing results. In the past, Geoffrey Orsak says, roughly two percent of U.S. secondary school graduates went on to study engineering.

"After putting our program into high schools, we have seen reporting rates of as high as 65 percent of kids taking the engineering class saying they want to become an engineer. That is really a remarkable turnaround," he said.

And a necessary one for the future, Mr. Orsak says, since engineering is the engine that drives such varied and innovative fields as mechanics, computers, aerospace, and genome research.


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