It's time that we stop envying China, and start making the U.S. a friendlier place for engineers.
The fact that China is producing far more engineers and scientists than the United States is often cited as a major threat to America's continued prosperity. The problem is real, but in many ways, it is misunderstood--and by no means is it impossible to solve.
First, any comparisons must take account of the fact that China's population is more than four times ours. Thus, while China produces 100,000 more engineers per year than we do, the two countries are about even on a per capita basis, and indeed well below Taiwan and South Korea.
Second, not all engineers are equal. Many Chinese "engineers" do not have skills that their counterparts have in this country or other technologically savvy countries. And the fact that their knowledge is relatively rudimentary is significant. The entrepreneurs who will revolutionize the emerging bioscience, nanotechnology, and information technology industries are not likely to be amateurs working on homemade computers in dorm rooms in the same way that the trailblazers of the past did. They will need to be expertly trained in science and math, or at least be able to hire many others who are.
Third, regardless of how many engineers China is turning out, the important fact is that we in the United States are not doing all that we should to secure our future. Kids today are less enthusiastic about math and science than those of a previous generation. As a result, for some time now, companies have relied on immigrants to staff tech shops, engineering firms, and biolabs. More than half of new American-trained Ph.D.'s in science and engineering now come from abroad. The numbers would be even higher if applicants from nations such as Iran and Pakistan were not screened as closely as they are.
But despite our reliance on immigrants, political support for generous immigration laws is waning. When, for example, next year's supply of H-1B visas was depleted four months before the year even began, the general sense was that more visas were not forthcoming.
This is unwise. To be sure, national security is of paramount importance in setting immigration policy. But denying visas to talented students constitutes cutting off our nose to spite our face: It is time not only to ease up on restrictions, but also to encourage the best scientific brains in the world to come to the U.S. to study. Let's open our doors especially to students from China and India, where the greatest pools of talent lie. If we don't, then Europe, Australia, and even Japan will be only too happy to welcome the talent we are passing up, as they already are doing. Actually, we should do more than let prospective engineers into the U.S. Our goal should be to get foreign-born scientists to stay not temporarily but permanently. The way to do that is to grant citizenship to foreign students who receive a graduate degree in math or science from an accredited U.S. university.
Reforming immigration policy is only half the story, however. In the longer run, we sorely need to encourage more of our own youth to choose the technical careers. One way to do this is to promote the link between science and entrepreneurship in the schools. If young people understood the opportunities that await them if they apply their skills in that direction, surely more of them would pursue scientific studies. Educators must lead the way, teaching today's college students--and ideally high school students--about the achievements of great techies like Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page. It is long past time that our culture celebrate these role models as much as it does our sports and entertainment stars.
Fortunately, educational support for entrepreneurship is growing. Twenty years ago, you couldn't find a course in entrepreneurship in more than a handful of colleges. Today, numerous courses are taught at hundreds of universities. The next big step is to take entrepreneurship out of business schools--where most of these classes have been housed--and spread it to the rest of the campus, engineering schools and science departments in particular. Nothing less than the continued economic leadership of the United States is at stake.
Carl Schramm is the president and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and Robert Litan is a vice president there.