Furthermore, even after they receive their degree, a growing proportion of US graduates—in the case of baccalaureate engineers, slightly over half—decide to become investment bankers on Wall Street, lawyers, corporate executives, or some other form of worker. More S&P 500 CEOs receive their undergraduate training in engineering than in any other field, in spite of the minority of undergraduates who receive degrees in that field. About 23% of the nation’s CEOs majored in engineering, 13% in economics, and 12% in business; the remainder are trained in a broad variety of other disciplines. It can justifiably be argued that those who migrate from science or engineering into other fields still use their education for the betterment of society, but they generally do not then directly contribute to the nation’s research enterprise. The point is that it takes a lot of third-graders to produce one contributing research scientist or engineer and a very long time to do it.
But that is only the beginning. The newly minted scientist or engineer must continue to pursue his or her education and the search for knowledge, at least informally, at an ever-increasing pace throughout his or her career or become professionally “middle-aged” by the time they are 30 years old. That is a consequence of the exploding supply of technical information in the world, which is said to double about every 2 years. Studies of the frequency of citations of scientific and technical articles suggest a half-life of such information, depending on the field, of about 3 to 6 years. Similarly, studies of the course content in university catalogs and qualitative surveys of science and engineering professionals indicate that, absent continued learning, the professional value of the specific knowledge imparted through their formal studies becomes negligible in about 5 years. This perhaps explains why there are seemingly always engineers seeking employment at the same time that employers are decrying an “engineering shortage.” Employers are seeking integrated-circuit and jet-engine designers, not vacuum-tube and propeller designers.