Students Take on International Outsourcing Debate

March 1, 2006

After a slew of late-night phone calls overseas and hours spent slogging through numbers, an international group of Pratt students in the Master of Engineering Management Program has gathered evidence challenging the notion that the U.S. is losing its technological edge to developing nations like China and India.

Led by MEMP student and Virginia native Ben Rissing, the group sought to offer a more refined analysis of the number of engineering and non-engineering related degrees awarded annually by the United States, India and China. The students presented their findings, which had earlier been published online, on Feb. 20.

The team said the ultimate goal of their ongoing efforts is to provide a more accurate picture of the threat presented by outsourcing, and recommendations for more effective ways to produce U.S. engineers less vulnerable to its effects. Faculty leaders Vivek Wadhwa, executive in residence at the Pratt School, and Gary Gereffi, professor of sociology, guided the students in their research.

Our objective is to find out what the numbers actually are to determine if the U.S. is really falling behind," Rissing said. "We will also survey industry to identify the future directions of outsourcing. That should help determine what to teach engineers to help make them more outsourcing-proof.

The numbers frequently cited suggest that the U.S. graduated 70,000 undergraduate engineers in 2004, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000, Rissing said. However, those commonly quoted numbers tell only part of the story, the group found.

"The statistics released from organizations in China and India include not only four-year degrees, but also three-year degrees and diploma holders," the group reported. "These numbers have been compared against the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees in the United States.

The distinction is an important one, the students said, because it is the jobs of "transactional engineers" in the U.S. that are most often outsourced to "dynamic engineers" in India and China. They define transactional engineers as those who most often conduct rote or repetitive tasks in the workforce and usually hold technician or diploma awards as opposed to four-year degrees. Dynamic engineers, on the other hand, are individuals capable of abstract thinking and high-level, scientific problem solving, more typical of graduates with a bachelor's degree from accredited universities, they said.

The students first set out to identify credible, well-documented and comparable engineering educational statistics for the U.S., China and India—a task they quickly found was easier said than done.

It's hard to contact universities in India," said Nishanth Lingamneni, from Hyderabad, India, whose job it was to track down graduation data for his home country. "Just getting the correct phone number is a challenge. And then, even though I speak the language, the people often didn't seem to understand me."

The coding system for Indian phone numbers was recently revamped, the students explained, making any information obtained from websites more than one or two years old useless. The many dialects spoken in India and uncertainty about what the students were asking for added to the challenge, they added.

The team discovered that the Indian government was an unreliable source for graduation data, finally settling on the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) instead. After 10 nights of phone calling through the night, Lingamneni finally got the numbers he was looking for.

Fiona (Qi) Weng from Beijing met with similar struggles in her efforts to obtain easily interpretable information from the Ministry of Education in China. "In China, the 'engineering' category is broadly defined," Weng said. This means that the reported number of engineers produced by China in 2004 may very well include the equivalent of motor mechanics and industrial technicians, the students said.

To create a more accurate comparison between the number of engineers produced by each country, the students included engineers, computer scientists and information technology specialists in the U.S. data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics. That method raised the number of graduates in the U.S. to 222,335, compared to 215,000 in India and 644,106 in China, they reported.

When the group factored differences in the country's population size into the equation, they found that the U.S. produces roughly 750 technology specialists per 1 million citizens, compared with 500 in China and 200 in India.

"This experience has changed our perspectives along with the perspectives of others in the MEMP program and beyond," said Todd Stevens, from West Deptford, N. J. "People realize we've been working our tails off and they are interested because this potentially impacts the future of their job security.

We're educating more than just ourselves," he said.

Indeed, the Duke study continues to receive significant attention in major media outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to CNN International. The National Academies and other policymakers have also taken note, Wadhwa said.

"The students are having a real impact on the national debate," Wadhwa said. "Just because they are students doesn't mean they can't change the world."

This semester, the students are continuing their efforts to dissect the graduation statistics from China, which largely remain a "black box," Rissing said. The group also hopes to collect outsourcing survey information from at least 100 major companies.

Other MEMP students involved in the project include Kiran Kalakuntla, from Hyderabad, India; Soomi Cheong from Seoul, Korea; Patrick Chen from Westford, MA; Shingayi Sikipa from Harare, Zimbabwe; Arron Fan from Nanjing, China; Bansi Kotecha and Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian from Mumbai, India; and Chun Wu from Oakland, CA.