The Impact of the Engineering Brain Drain On the American Economy

Two Factors that have led to Brain Drain in the Engineering Sector;

Renowned for its cutting edge research and quality education in engineering, America continues to be a popular destination for engineering students worldwide. By fall 2012, international students accounted for 57% of full time enrolment in graduate engineering programs. As their demand rises globally, USA now competes with other countries in attracting and retaining skilled, local and foreign talent. A brain drain can be defined as the emigration of a large group of individuals with technical skills or knowledge. Currently, there are two kinds of engineering brain drains weakening the American economy: the return of international students to their homelands and the migration of elite students into other fields.


1. The Return of International Students To Their Home Countries

For a long time, the country has held the helm as a land of vast opportunities, acquiring an array of talent from around the globe. Some of the leading companies founded in US were started by foreign born nationals. E-bay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, was born in France to Iranian parents. Sergey Brin of Google grew up in Russia before he immigrated to US. However, with out-dated immigration laws, the trend has begun to change, crippling the nation’s economic growth.
International students from countries such as China and India flock American universities to pursue engineering degrees. However, upon completion, they often have a very difficult time securing a job or even starting their own company due to the limited number of H-1B visas issued by the government. Many are forced to return to their home countries, robbing America of skilled labour that is deemed valuable yet scarce in various sectors.

Countries such as China, Australia, Chile, Singapore, and Canada now offer stipends and attractive inducements to lure in foreign entrepreneurs. The Chinese government has introduced a program under which Chinese scientists who move back to the country can get free housing, a bonus of 1 million yuan and, in some cases, a prestigious academic title attached to their name. Increasingly, non-American engineers are opting to return to their home countries where there is a booming economy and increased opportunities for research and development. Years invested in providing quality education to these immigrants are rendered useless as they opt to return home to apply their skills and knowledge there.

With the demand for engineers surging globally, American legislators are seeking to reform current immigration laws by increasing the number of H-1B visas issued annually. While there have been arguments that immigrants will take jobs away from American natives, industry leaders such as the late Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have cited that America is unable to produce enough indigenous engineers to match the current industry demands. Mark Zuckerberg has taken this a step further by forming an organization with top executives from companies such as Google and Yahoo to influence the current debates on immigration reforms.

Immigrants have accounted for 52% of Silicon Valley start-ups, 25% of US global patents, and 47% of PhD students. All the effort America places are rendered wasted when international students return back to countries that will build up industries which directly compete with the American economy. Jobs are also created in other countries and major tech firms such as Apple have outsourced labour as there are not enough engineers in America. As this trend rises across the country, it is unlikely that America will be able to maintain its edge on innovation and engineering in years to come.

To prevent the international brain drain, America may want to develop a more economically focused immigration system. After all, most of these individuals not only expand the economy, but create jobs for Americans as well.


2. The Migration of Elite Students Into Other Fields

In most countries, engineers are regarded highly and are often fitted with a celebrity-like status. China has engineers holding most of the top political posts in the country. Sadly, this is not so in America. Engineers are often depicted as social misfits who undertake a difficult and dull profession that does not even pay well. With such a negative impression in place, most students opt not to pursue a profession in engineering. A large number of students who plan to pursue an engineering degree typically switch to other subjects or fail to graduate at all.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), American universities continue to face great challenges in retaining home grown engineering students. Despite a strong demand for engineers within the country, America continues to supply a constrained number of workers who can fill these spaces. While the total number of people graduating from college in the U.S. has increased nearly 50 percent in the last 20 years, the annual output of engineering graduates has remained firmly stuck at about 120,000.

Burdened by large student debts and an economic recession, young elite students are opting for professions that will benefit them the most in terms of monetary upheaval. Prominent banks carry out rigorous recruiting drives across the top schools in America, drawing the smartest brains towards a career in finance with the promise of large salaries. The problem America faces with such trends is that elite students are drifting into sectors that will not necessarily contribute to the economic productivity of the country. Therefore, it is imperative that the government invests in critical areas of study and provides incentives to engineering students, such as college aid.

American universities must also invest in providing a stimulating learning environment as some students drop out because they find the course boring and increasingly complex. Purdue University has taken on new steps to hype their engineering programs from designing classrooms that encourage teamwork and imitate real-world labs to working on tablets and using 3-D printers. There is a need to foster and mentor the next generation of American engineers who hold the key to maintain America’s leadership in innovation and technology.

While the American economy has continued to struggle, many engineering jobs remain unfilled as there are not enough engineering graduates to meet the demands of the industry. Students are opting for less viable fields and in turn America is steadily losing its position as a first class contender in producing exceptional talent and ground breaking innovations. In turn, American companies are moving jobs out of the country as they seek qualified engineers who can keep them competitive in a challenging global market. While the engineering field is booming in other countries, America is struggling to keep up with the rest of the world.

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