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4 Quality of the Work Force A critical characteristic of a work force is its quality. Some observers have expressed concern that the quality of the engineering [and scien- tific) work force in this country may be declining. This concern is not consistent with the results of the panel's informal survey of employers of engineers See Appendix DJ and may reflect not so much a decline in quality as rising expectations of what engineers should be able to do or guarantee. On the other hand, evidence that might support the nega- tive view includes the difficulties in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, the many recalls of automobiles to correct engi- neering defects, and the problems that generally afflict U.S. industries, especially the traditional industries. Industrial decline can have many interrelated causes in addition to inadequate engineering. They include shortsighted management; national priorities that have assigned a large percentage of highly skilled engineers to defense and space programs rather than to indus- trial production; investment in foreign countries having relatively cheap labor; and many others. Current Views of Quality There is no direct measure of the quality of the engineering work force. Opinions on the question differ, and these differences are typified by the results of the panel's informal survey and the contrasting aca- demic analysis, as discussed in this section. 28
QUALITY OF THE WORK FORCE 29 More than half of the industrial respondents to the panel's survey of employers reported difficulty in finding quality graduates in computer hardware, computer software, electrical, and electronics engineering. Difficulty in finding quality graduates in other engineering disciplines ranged from 14 percent of respondents for civil engineers to 47 percent for mechanical engineers. Nevertheless, relatively few respondents noted a decline in the quality of recent graduates, and the predominant opinion was that quality is rising, although most forefront industrial organizations believe in and provide for some training above the B.S. level. The academic appraisal is less sanguine. The initial premise is that the scope of engineering and the knowledge required in the practice of engineering have broadened steadily over the years and will continue to do so very rapidly. The conceptual level of that knowledge and, conse- quently, the complexity of engineering practice also are rising signifi- cantly, but at a more moderate rate. Historically, the engineering community has kept pace with the scope and amount of available knowledge through professional literature, computers and technical course work, and by means of its own growth in numbers. An impor- tant change has occurred, however. For many years, while the average level of secondary education throughout the United States population was rising, the average level of undergraduate education in engineering rose correspondingly. But 15 or 20 years ago, the average level of secondary education peaked and began to decline. The average level of engineering education has declined as well. In terms of numbers awarded annually, bachelor's degrees in engineering rose about 75 percent between 1968 and 1982, while numbers of master's degrees stayed about the same; numbers of doctoral degrees, which peaked in 1972, had declined by 1982 to about the level of 1968. Moreover, doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens in 1982 were down more than 40 percent from the peak of 1972 and more than 20 percent from 1968. Thus, during a time of rapid growth in the scope and conceptual level of knowledge required to practice engineering successfully, the average degree level of education of our younger engineers has actually declined. That this trend might have a long-lasting, harmful effect on engineering education is a source of concern. A similar harmful effect on industrial innovation and competitiveness might also occur and jeopardize this country's posture in world markets. Continuing educa- tion in industry has grown during the past 15 years but can only partly counteract the general downturn. Academics believe that they can explain the apparent conflict
30 ENGINEERING EMPLOYMENT CHAMCTERIS TICS between this analysis and other opinions which hold that the quality of recent engineering graduates is at least as high as it has ever been. They argue that engineering schools in recent years have been able to restrict their undergraduate enrollments to only the best students. High school seniors planning to major in engineering have scored well above the average for college-bound seniors on both the verbal and mathematical parts of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. ~ Quantitative scores on the Grad- uate Record Examination have remained-high among engineers headed for graduate school. These factors, educators contend, have tended to obscure the negative effects of problems such as high student-to-fac- ulty ratios and obsolete equipment. Thus, wha-t-^employers may be seeing in young engineers, according to the academic argument, is basic intelligence and aptitude, not necessarily depth of education. Opinions of the quality of the engineering work force are varied, as we have seen, and necessarily subjective. Nevertheless, the issue is critical and warrants continuing serious attention.