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Does the US face an engineering gap?

A new study deflates claims that China and India have a vast advantage in graduates.

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If China graduates more than eight times the number of engineers that the United States does, is it thrashing America in the technology race?

That's what many scientists and politicians are suggesting in the wake of an October report by the highly regarded National Academies. Its numbers are startling: China adds 600,000 new engineers a year; the US, only 70,000. Even India, with 350,000 new engineers a year, is outdoing the US, the study suggests.

But that gloomy assessment depends on how one defines engineers: Those with at least four years of college training? Or do their ranks include two-year graduates of technical schools and even, in China's case, auto mechanics?

By making more specific comparisons, US competitiveness, as measured by newly minted engineers, is not eroding as fast as many say - if it's eroding at all, according to a Duke University study released last week. "Inconsistent reporting of problematic engineering graduation data has been used to fuel fears that America is losing its technological edge," the study states. "A comparison of like-to-like data suggests that the US produces a highly significant number of engineers, computer scientists, and information technology specialists, and remains competitive in global markets."

In some ways, experts say, today's debate over engineers reflects the cold-war controversy over the so-called missile gap in which the Soviets' advantage in missile numbers was counterbalanced to some extent by the quality and accuracy of America's nuclear arsenal.

"During the 'missile gap' and post-missile gap until the fall of the Berlin Wall the same sorts of issues were being raised about Russia as are being raised now about China and India," says Frank Huband, of the American Society for Engineering Education in Washington.

Is there an "engineer gap" today? Many groups say yes. In a report last summer, the Business Roundtable and 14 other corporate groups called for doubling the number of graduating US engineers, citing China's lead.

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