Danny Taggart's Blogarama

A more-or-less daily dose of news, politics, techmology, and any random thoughts that pass through my head.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Sky not falling, American tech not doomed

The publisher of CIO Magazine, Gary Beach, writes an ominously titled article, "The Education Crisis", in the December 15, 2004 issue (via Online Universities Weblog). I suppose it's the fad nowadays to bemoan America's fall from its position as world technology leader. This collective sense of doom oftentimes produces incoherent arguments from otherwise smart people. This is one of those times.

Beach is particularly concerned about the decline in US engineering graduates. To support his concern, he engages in some fuzzy math. He claims that:
    So in the 16 years from 1985 to 2001, there was a 40 percent drop in the number of engineering degrees awarded.
However, he extrapolates this figure from the ratio of engineering degrees to total degrees earned over a number of years, without looking at the change in total degrees earned. If you look at the National Science Foundation statistics, the number of Bachelor's degrees in engineering was 77,572 in 1985 and 59,536 in 2000, a 23% decline. If you count Master's and Doctoral degrees, the totals are 101,710 in 1985 and 90,592 in 2000, an 11% decline. This is a far cry from the 40% Beach claims.

Next, Beach says that this decline is bad news for the "tech business." But surely, the "tech business" consists of more than just engineering. In fact, the number of US science and engineering degrees earned was 422,515 in 1985 and 521,848 in 2000, a 23% increase. How does this square with Beach's claims? The answer is that the decline in engineering graduates is offset by increases in other S&E fields. For example, natural sciences degrees are up 23% from 1985 to 2000.

Furthermore, the decline has not been straight down since 1985. The number has fluctuated, dipping in the early 90s, rising in the late 90s, and dipping again. This is hardly a "crisis", even for engineering.

Nowhere does Beach attempt to explain why engineering degrees are the litmus test for the American educational system or American technology leadership. As the technology industry changes over time, so does the educational landscape. The computer industry has been a primary driver of American growth over the past 10 years and the number of computer science graduates increased to meet the demand. We can expect the same dynamism in the future.

Beach points out that Asian countries are increasing their number of engineering graduates, at higher percentages of total graduates than the US. He also notes that more engineering and natural sciences doctoral degrees are now conferred in Asian countries than in the US. He offers the unsubstantiated claim that "PhDs generate the innovation that creates new industries." Of course, we know about Bill Gates and Michael Dell, neither of whom completed college. I would offer my own unsubstantiated claim that it is the non-PhDs who are busy innovating and creating new industries, not the academics pursuing tenure.

But let's think about the Asian situation a bit more carefully:

1. These countries are heavily investing in fields which will become oversaturated in the long-run, by virtue of the fact that all of them are doing it. Their educated workers will find themselves in the most competitive fields, with commodified wages under constant downward pressure.

2. The technology industry will change ever more rapidly. The skills in demand today may not be in demand tomorrow. That means investing in specialized technical knowledge will not produce the kinds of returns it has in the past. Being able to understand markets and business processes and to be flexible in transitioning one's knowledge and skills is essential. In this case, America has the long-term advantage.

It is true that the American education system faces important challenges. It may even be in a crisis. But the evidence offered in Gary Beach's article does not support this contention. Addressing these challenges requires careful consideration, not knee-jerk alarmism.