Hollowing Out Science and Engineering Careers

"Education is the best investment in our future."  Twenty years ago I would not have doubted such an obvious truism.  But a recent party conversation made me have second thoughts.  We talked about how various college majors correlate with future careers.  As always, I assumed that majoring in engineering, computer science, chemistry or biophysics is a safe bet for career-oriented students.  But a 22-year-old girl disagreed with me, saying that her boyfriend had just graduated from Georgia Tech, one of the best schools in the South, with an engineering degree, but was unable to find a job in his field.  Eventually, family connections helped him land a purely clerical job which did not utilize any knowledge acquired at Georgia Tech.

Unconvinced by this anecdotal evidence, I decided to delve into the subject.  Here is a reality check, courtesy of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the unemployment rate among electrical engineers (EE) and computer scientists (CS) was, by and large, below 2%, but it has gone up drastically since then.  It soared to 8.6% in the second quarter of 2009 for EEs and to 5.7% for CSs.  At that time, the government counted 29,000 EEs out of work.  Although these numbers are below the average unemployment rate in the US, they are extremely alarming, because we are talking about a profession that drives technological progress.  On a human level, these people made personal sacrifices to get their degrees, trusting that their knowledge would be needed, only to find out that society had failed them.

Since then, jobless rates have fluctuated.  In the third quarter of 2009, the unemployment rate dropped for EEs, but increased for CSs.  For mechanical engineers, the unemployment rate was 9.5%.  All in all, the jobless level remains painfully high.  Not only do the new graduates have to compete for a smaller number of openings among themselves, they also compete with a larger pool of laid-off workers, as well as retirees, who lost their savings and need to return to work.

The bleak government statistics are only the tip of the iceberg, because they do not account for people like that Georgian girl's boyfriend, who is employed, but who is not working in his profession.  That's why I asked my colleague, who is thoroughly familiar with the job market for engineers, to comment on that story.  He was not surprised.  "What do you expect from a country that decided to abandon its manufacturing sector?  We have gotten rid of mining, oil-drilling, logging and nuclear power.  We no longer have ugly and smelly factories, but despite zillions of dollars in government subsidies, promised green jobs are not forthcoming.  We have a cleaner environment and buy everything from abroad.  Who needs engineers now?"

We still can boast of the best software companies: Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe, etc.  But their products are pirated on a huge scale all over the world.  Microsoft estimates that 90% of Windows software used in China is stolen.  Would, for example, Japan's economy survive if for every Toyota sold abroad, nine more Toyotas were stolen?  Bootleg copies of American programs are widely sold in India, Russia and many other countries.  The Chinese government promises to stamp out piracy, and claims significant progress toward that goal.  But those with a longer attention span may still remember that exactly the same pledge was made 20 years ago.  Of course, the notion that the government of a tightly controlled country like China is unable to enforce copyright laws is absurd.  Another disingenuous excuse for this outright theft is that American software is too expensive, and a poor country like China could not afford the software otherwise.  Yet, China as a nation holds hundreds of billions of dollars of US debt.  In other words, the party that amassed an astronomical amount of surplus cash is asking the hopeless debtor to show leniency and, amazingly, the debtor plays along.

To aggravate the unemployment problem, the US government has brought in hundreds of thousands of foreign professionals by issuing H-1B visas and by utilizing a host of other programs known by their bureaucratic designations: TN, L-1, etc.  These programs were created by Congress under pressure from US employers, who cited the shortage of qualified American candidates.  Although many professional engineering societies have consistently debunked the myth of shortages, their lobbying power was no match for that of big companies, and predictably, the latter prevailed.  Curiously, it was now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff who was instrumental in ramming the H-1B program through Congress.  He was retained by Microsoft and that's why the H-1B visas are nicknamed "Gates-Abramoff visas."  The H-1B program is still around, despite the dismal state of the US economy and despite the opposition of many reputable groups, researchers and Senators.  For example, Michael S. Teitelbaum, Vice President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said that no one "has been able to find any objective data suggesting general 'shortages' of scientists and engineers."  Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, called the program a corporate subsidy.

These programs were sold under the guise that they would enrich this country by bringing intellectuals and talented scholars here.  Their proponents invoked the image of the pre-WWII immigration, associated with names like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi.  In reality, the government already has a separate program for admitting "outstanding professors and researchers" who "are recognized internationally for their outstanding academic achievements in a particular field," known as the EB-1 program.  The much broader H-1B program is utilized by run-of-the-mill workers, most of whom do not possess any unique knowledge or skills.  For example, a person with a bachelor's degree who knows how to design websites would qualify.  Employers push for it, simply because they prefer a surplus of potential employees, just like members of either gender prefer a surplus of the members of the opposite gender at a dance party.

While the job market for graduates with bachelor's degrees is ailing, when it comes to newly-minted PhDs, it shows almost no vital signs.  A single academic vacancy often attracts hundreds of applicants, which is the case not just for fields like psychology and comparative literature, but for math, physics and engineering too.  A widely cited article in the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007 was titled: "The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers" and was subtitled: "Tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers."  According to the article, despite depressingly high unemployment, underemployment and misemployment of new graduates, "leaders at the top of government, academe, and industry insist that the nation needs more scientists" and argue for enlarging the "pipeline" of science students.  Amazingly, the same leaders acknowledge that "the recommendations for additional support for thousands of undergraduates and graduates could be setting those students up for jobs that might not exist," but that minor detail apparently does not bother them too much.

It is fashionable to blame our education system for the country's economic ills.  And it definitely has its share of problems on both the high school and college levels.  Many of these problems are caused by bureaucrats entrenched in school districts and in state and federal departments of education.  They push their politically correct agendas, such as catering to the lowest common denominator, rather than helping gifted students who want to learn more, which they deem ‘elitist.'  But despite all drawbacks, there are plenty of talented teachers and dedicated parents who do a remarkable job of educating the new generation.  There is no shortage of overachieving high school kids who are eager to go to college.  And we still have the best colleges and universities in the world.  According to the latest ranking by the US News & World Report -- for what it's worth -- 13 out of the 20 top world universities are located in the United States.  Chinese and Indian researchers have succeeded in some areas, but by and large, the Americans are still ahead in many more areas.  They get the lion's share of Nobel Prizes and other coveted accolades.  Our economy is losing ground not because of the decline of the education system.  It is the other way around -- our young and talented people are being let down by the economy.  Simply put, they are no longer needed.