Monday, November 10, 2008

The math/science crisis

I participated in a math and science conference a few weeks ago. Two interesting points came out of that meeting for me. The first point is that we actually looked at defining the problem! The 2005 Duke University study "Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate", did point out that we are doing OK in production. They reported that the United States annually produces 137,437 engineers with at least a bachelor's degree while India produces 112,000 and China 351,537. So we can outsource and import our way towards maintaining our technological dominance, but we still need to staff all of those classified engineering positions that require U.S. citizenship.

So we have a problem but not as huge as some of the numbers flying around right now. This is also back up by basic economics which would dictate that if industry lacked the talent they needed the price for that talent would go up significantly. We know this is not the case because if industry was paying $90,000 starting salaries for mathematicians and engineers, I can assure you there would be no shortage in our University system.

Salaries are depressed because less expensive labor from other countries is keeping wages low for technical positions. And our university students are not pursuing majors with depressed salaries. College grads look for the highest payoff with the least amount of work and a business major sure looks a lot easier than engineering. According to CNN, business majors were looking at $48K vs Engineers looking at $52K. According to NCES, the number of business graduates has gone from about a million a year in 1900 to over 1.4 million today. The number of engineers has stayed constant at 79,000.

All may not be lost. Based on recent Wall Street issues and the pending layoffs of over 70,000 employees, people may start gravitating away from business into other majors. But that brings us to the second point. You still have to enjoy math and science to go into the technical fields and that is not happening in our elementary schools.

Later this week I will cover point number two which is the dismal state of math in elementary schools.

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