Engineering Graduates in China and India

It’s been commonly accepted in North America that India and China are graduating more engineers than we are and that this is going to lead to a shift in the balance of innovation in the future.

But a Salon article cites research that shows that the comparisons aren’t exactly fair:

Typical articles have stated that in 2004 the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000. Our study has determined that these are inappropriate comparisons.

I have two comments on this.  First, the main argument is that the degrees in other countries don’t compare with the degrees in America.  But knowing nothing about the quality of engineering education in China or India, I have to wonder if they simply haven’t figured out how to educate an engineer in 3 years instead of 4.  I don’t think you can simply discount someone’s education because it wasn’t done the way you like.

And the second comment is that an awful lot of innovation happens by people who aren’t engineering graduates.  Many of the most successful tech engineers and entrepreneurs didn’t have an engineering degree.  Steve Wozniak for example (he got his degree later). 

In my opinion it’s more important to build a culture of innovation than it is to focus on creating engineers.  When it comes to designing airplanes or bridges, I want an “real” engineer doing the job because my life depends on them knowing things that a casual airplane designer might not know. 

In computing, there are places where an engineering degree and real engineering discipline are vital.  Designing the software for an ABS system or a plane’s avionics requires real rigor.  So does designing the technology stack that those things live on top of - databases, operating system kernels, and so on.

But where is innovation happening these days?  On the Internet.  A grand technology playground, where things change so quickly that most of the specific skills you learned in university are already obsolete.  Did they teach you Ruby on Rails?  ASP.NET 2.0?  AJAX?

There are some core things you need to learn to be a good engineer.  How to design, how to validate a design, prove it’s solid.  How to test it.  The basic “how stuff works”.  But I think it may be possible to learn these things in less than four years – and if so, maybe the number of graduates is closer to a fair comparison than the US would like.