Despite STEM Test Score Doomsayers, America Continues To Prosper
In my previous article I argued that today’s engineering education is focused on research engineering so, therefore, it is not serving and properly educating most engineers in knowledge and skills that are needed for their vocation. While good, deep, strenuous engineering curriculum is essential to provide some engineers with the skill and knowledge for good robust research engineering; most engineering graduates will not move forward, nor have the interest, in pursuing a career in this type of engineering or vocational path.
Most engineers would be better served, as would companies and the public, with engineering graduates possessing a more practical, hands-on curriculum with more aspects of good business (and technical business) and people development since such much of their work and advancement of projects depend significantly more on these abilities. Or, at least, as much on these abilities as technical knowledge. Generally, the advancement of products and services will not proceed, or proceed effectively, without the symbiosis of the technical training and practical/business components.
I previously referenced the article, The American Crisis in Science and Engineering, from December 2018. In it the number of undergraduates studying engineering in the United States, 7%, is compared to the number in China, 30%, and equated to “an ominous view of the future” for America. Hogwash! The number of engineers needed in any society is and should be a function of economic demand. By this I am not stating that the 7% figure is too high or low, but am simply stating that statistics mean nothing out of context.
The United States is far more advanced economically, technologically, financially, and especially in productivity than, not only China, but every other nation on the planet. The percent of the population needed to be employed as engineers is most likely less than other nations. Over the past several centuries the United States has built an immense infrastructure to accommodate technical and productive development in a variety of ways other than direct engineering. I have personally worked with people in these vocations and with organizational infrastructure supporting this need. By this I am not making a case for fewer engineers, but am only reinforcing the fact that many societal and infrastructure factors determine the need and demand for engineers. The number of engineers for a nation is an economic demand. Developing countries probably do need more engineers as a percent of college graduates than developed nations.
Another set of statistics reported in the Crisis article is a survey which found that only 16% believe that the U.S. STEM education is above average, while 46% believed it to be below average. Since the 1970s I have heard (and read reports) how Americans score lower than other nations in math and science; so, therefore, this will be our demise. Really? If this is the case, and apparently it has been for 50 or more years, then why does the United States continuously outperform every other nation on earth in productivity, output, technology, agriculture, income and most other economic factors. Sorry, but engineering and science are not the underlying reason for a prosperous nation and society. There are plenty of other factors at play, which is why these generalizations should not be made.
The article also states that “We are a wealthy people because we have dominated the world technologically since World War II.” Well, we have dominated technology since WWII, but we have in fact dominated it long prior to WWII. Much more than the time and space for this article could allow it to be described, but study the American Industrial Revolution and the massive technology emergence of the 1910s and 1920s – which rose out of the Industrial Revolution and even something much more powerful, which was the underpinning for the Industrial Revolution. Liberty and freedom, manifested in our Christendom is the foundation upon which our technology and abundant life and society was built. Our wealth is a result of American liberty which underpinned our technology drive, not technology in and of itself.
In fact, it was American engineers who developed nearly all of our accounting practices, double-entry bookkeeping by 14thcentury Italian Catholic priest Luca Pacioli notwithstanding. American engineers had a need in the market for more robust financial data for better decision-making so through the later part of the Industrial Revolution they develop all the practices used today in business. You can see more information on aspects of this here, here, here, and here.
The article also purports that the government should “force” universities into more research and also create government “high-quality institutions with sufficient incentives.” Now, that is utterly anti-American. It is also economically destructive since virtually nothing the government does is efficient (productive), and only funded through the confiscation of our citizen’s wealth.
One final observation on engineering education’s strict focus on research curriculum is that, over the years, I have been told it is okay because this curriculum teaches engineers to solve problems. It does teach engineers to solve deep mathematical problems and technical problems. Again, these skills are needed. Yet, it does not prepare them for solving production problems, people problems, and business problems, which are the cornerstone to creating wealth and delivering it (products and services) to the public in a quick, high-quality, and costly manner.
Even though these engineers (the current research curriculum engineers) would rival other engineers in solving these deep research problems, the engineers educated in the manner I describe in the previous paragraph would bury these research-educated engineers in the marketplace of the economy.
The final moral to this story is: there is much more to engineering, and engineering education, than what most universities are pushing and teaching. There is a robust world with room – and need – for all types of engineering disciplines, and well beyond just mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, and other “curriculum” engineers. In fact, to be truly more competitive in the marketplace and in the global economy engineering we need a much broader recognition in its education of knowledge and skills. I, for one, would welcome it.
Originally published on Townhall Finance.
Jim Huntzinger began his career as a manufacturing engineer with Aisin Seiki (a Toyota Group company and manufacturer of automotive components) when they transplanted to North America to support Toyota. Over his career he has also researched at length the evolution of manufacturing in the United States with an emphasis on lean’s influence and development. In addition to his research on TWI, he has extensively researched the history of Ford’s Highland Park plant and its direct tie to Toyota’s business model and methods of operation.
Huntzinger is the President and Founder of Lean Frontiers and a graduate from Purdue University with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering Technology and received a M.S. in Engineering Management from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He authored the book, Lean Cost Management: Accounting for Lean by Establishing Flow, was a contributing author to Lean Accounting: Best Practices for Sustainable Integration.