University of California Not Producing Enough Engineers, Cal Dean Charges

UC Berkeley College of Engineering. (UC)
The dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering says it’s time for his administration to make tough decisions about which colleges grow and shrink. (UC Berkeley Engineering)

As the University of California prepares for its new president, Janet Napolitano, the dean of its top engineering college is charging the public university with failing to meet the national and global demand for high-tech talent.

In the U.S. about 4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are in engineering, compared with 19 percent in Asia and 12 percent in Europe.

UC Berkeley has the country’s premier public program in engineering – on a par with Stanford and MIT. The dean of the College of Engineering, Shankar Sastry, said he’s stuck rejecting hundreds of qualified students because the administration has not been “nimble enough” to set budget priorities.

“The business community is saying, ‘Give us more engineers.’ The students are saying, ‘More of us want to study engineering,’ ” Sastry says, “So the challenge for us is to provision the demand, and to be able to meet it.”

Sastry’s program is known for being the hardest to get into at UC Berkeley, where the overall acceptance rate is 24 percent. Engineering lets in only about 12 percent.

While competitiveness can boost national rankings, it doesn’t boost community morale, Sastry said. Parents complain to him that their kids are pulling all-nighters studying, only to get rejected. And California companies tell him that without enough well-trained Americans, they’re stuck lobbying for H1B visas.

UC BERKELEY GRADUATES

For the incoming class this fall, Sastry accepted about 700 applicants. Most had perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, with just a handful as low as 3.6. Sastry said, “There’s roughly twice as many students who would meet all of these extremely high GPA requirements that we were not able to admit.”

Responding to Sastry’s charges, UC Berkeley Provost George Breslauer countered in an email that his administration is in fact nimble at responding to its students. He made two important points: First of all, lots of science and math classes are seeing “a sudden surge in demand” –  not just engineering.  Secondly, the administration is adding introductory classes and instructors to meet these sudden surges.

Engineering programs nationwide grapple with sky-high dropout rates. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, about 40 percent of U.S. engineering students didn’t finish their four-year programs. But at Berkeley, fully 80 percent go on to get their degree.

Erin Davis, a 2013 graduate, is among the few women in engineering. Davis said studying alongside mostly male classmates was emotionally exhausting and she considered dropping out. But supportive professors, plus acing a midterm, convinced her to stick it out. She said she realized, “OK, maybe I’m not as stupid as I think I am.”

The 22-year-old said she is taking a job at an investment firm in Portland. “They have massive portfolios for very rich clients, and I’m doing operations (to) implement the research team’s ideas. It’s basically Industrial Engineering 221.”

The average starting salary for graduates of her engineering college is about $75,000.

According to President Barack Obama, grads like Davis are in short supply across the country. Two years ago the president and his Jobs Council challenged engineering colleges to produce 10,000 more graduates a year.

Sastry has managed to increase the total number of engineering graduates by about 17 percent in the last five years, by doing more with less. He’s had to cut four faculty in that same period of time, and said “it’s not possible to squeeze in any more students.”

THE UC SYSTEM

California has been cutting support for higher education radically since 1990.  But Sastry said budget cuts, which have been ongoing, are no excuse to underreact to the changing job market. “Public schools have been too preoccupied with guaranteeing their existence, guaranteeing their survival, so to speak, while these demands have been changing.”

Daniel Mote is the incoming head of the National Academy of Engineering, which has advised Obama’s Jobs Council. He also served as vice chancellor at UC Berkeley during the 1990s.

Mote does not take a position on the conflict over the engineering college, but he does say there’s an important homework assignment here. “The question the provost has to address is whether these fluctuations are long-standing, or whether they’re just temporary because of some particular surge in interest that’s only short term, maybe a year or two.”

Mote believes things like IT and cybersecurity are not fads, and that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in training our share of the global workforce. “Look at engineers as a proportion of all college grads,” Mote said, “and in fact the one country is the world that closely matches the United States is Mozambique.”

The UC system has had not a concerted plan to grow its engineering programs — or science, technology or math — since 2005. The UC president’s office said there’s no new plan in the works at the systemwide level to expand any STEM field. Meanwhile, they have seen an increase in students choosing STEM majors across the individual campuses.

UCLA Engineering has awarded 36 percent more bachelor’s degrees in the last five years, while cutting three faculty. Dean Vijay Dhir believes a new plan for enrollment growth is overdue. “It’s not magic. We’ve got to invest.”

SETTING PRIORITIES

It’s hard for large institutions to pivot and suddenly choose one sector of the economy over another. But that’s exactly what Purdue University in Indiana is doing. Purdue plans to add 700 students over the next five years — which far outpaces Berkeley. To do it, Engineering Dean Leah Jamieson is adding more than 100 new teaching jobs.

Jamieson is raising $150 million from alums and companies, and her administration is matching that because, she explained, “engineering is a pinnacle of pride for the school.”

Jamieson said schools like Berkeley may have a harder time than Purdue setting priorities because “the greatest pride is in being extraordinarily good at everything or almost everything. Many times that’s a great thing, maybe just not right now.”

Without a plan in place, industrious types like UC Berkeley Professor Karl van Bibber have to hustle for their interests. Van Bibber witnessed his department lose staff due to budget cuts. This year, he lobbied hard for the university to add not one, but two, new faculty to nuclear engineering.

Van Bibber said the administration told him, “This is mortgaged against your future hiring.” But he wistfully quotes Wimpy from the old “Popeye the Sailor Man” cartoon. “I’ll gladly give you a dollar on Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Wimpy is a roly-poly man who hustles people into buying him burgers – an unflattering analogy for the growth strategy of a premier public university.

Listen to Aarti Shahani’s report in The California Report:

Related

  • jakeleone

    Starting salary for an RN is only 5k less, you have massive job security for the rest of your life. Oh, and did I meantion a pension, perfect benefits? The average career of an engineer is around 15 year, I would say producing more engineers is a waste of public funds.

    6 years to produces an Engineer, 2 years to produce an RN, I’d say we are winning by producing more RN’s than Engineers.

    No, U.C. does a great service to the U.S. by limiting the number of engineers, in favor of other industries, that actually have a heavier and longer term demand. So the U.S. is good at producing service jobs, such as an RN positions, other countries are good at producing engineers (in aggregate, over decades, RN’s have been have been in higher demand than engineers in the U.S.)

    • Jacky

      You’re missing the point. It’s not about the starting salaries, it’s about what America needs to stay competitive in this high-tech world.

      Producing nurses is a short-term benefit. Engineering is what will make the difference in the future.

      • jakeleone

        Boom and bust does not make a competitive economy, it creates deficits, inability to plan… Is that not what we are seeing? (hey, 16 trillion and counting). In this case we need to take advantage of our comparative advantage, and that is the U.S. is a service oriented economy.

        You can make money and drive an economy on services. Just because the past is ruled by Factory workers, does not mean that model will be the future, indeed we are seeing the change now, just realize it and embrace it.

        The reality is that if you over produce engineers, which we are doing right now (half of all STEM graduates are forced to seek work in other fields). You just generate deficits and unemployed workers.

        Look, when people in other countries stop over-valuing the dollar, when Corporation stop hording cash overseas, only then you will see a change in the way trade flows, but not until then. By over producing engineers we are just building a bigger avalanche. AKA nuclear sized Boom and Bust.

        • alcibiades415

          that makes absolutely no sense. but its ok, you’re right. you’re right on the internet that’s where you are.

          • jakeleone

            When you say “there many more young women wanting to be nurses than there are spots available” Aren’t you just confirming the need for educational institutions to expand their offering in the this field?

            Becoming an RN is a excellent stepping stone to a career in the medical field. It takes 2 years of course work to be qualified to take the California nursing exam, you can then get a great paying job that will allow you to save to things such as:

            - Further education (becoming a doctor or nurse practitioner
            - Save for a house and family

            Your career, as a nurse, can last 50 years. And in 30 years, you’ll qualify for pension retirement. Nothing beats that.

            Techies in the software industry get a lot of flack about being pampered, but the reality is their careers will be short, and their pay only temporarily high. It’s a bad deal, for techies, their earning potential, and the nation. Nothing beats a good paying unionized job in this U.S., for the general welfare of the most people.

          • BerkeleyDude

            Of course programs training both physicians and nurses need to be expanded — there is vast demand from qualified students and there is a huge societal need for people trained in those areas. There is also a huge shadow demand of people who might’ve taken a biological sciences track but would actually be happy to switch careers into medicine. This is another area where the university should be responsive on the people-training front.

            Where there might be a difference between medicine and engineering is on the research side of things — in Engineering, there are clearly many productive avenues for research that are ripe for investigation now and will strengthen the base upon which further innovations will be built. We see this as Engineering has gone through the phase-transition to support robust combinatorial innovation — by now, most new products incorporate or invoke thousands of patents, or ideas that could potentially be patentable. (As well as a few substantial breakthroughs that happen every now and then, but even really exploiting them needs a superstructure of combinatorial innovation on top of them.) By contrast, medicine still has plenty of single-patent innovations and still has a long delay of approval and evaluation. More biological foundations have to be laid in medicine, and it isn’t clear that we are limited by the number of researchers there. After all, many biological scientists seem to be engaged in “academic races” with other biologists pursuing essentially the same thing and being afraid of being scooped. This is not the case for Engineers for whom there are plenty of interesting problems to attack.

            So an increase in the teaching mission of the university vis-a-vis medicine might not be coupled as strongly to an increase in the research mission on that side.

          • Chris Jones

            As a Professor of Mechanical Engineering I have been giving considerable thought to this notion that the Unites States is running a deficit with regards to the output of engineering graduates. I find a contrast between the unanimous call for educating more engineers and the experience of our graduates. Starting salaries for graduates are attractive, but many graduates have a difficult finding a job. Furthermore, many young engineering professionals discover early on that their compensation does not rise as quickly as their colleagues in management, medicine, law, etc. They often then switch fields or go back to school.

            This leads me to believe that we are actually educating too many engineers. I would offer two contributing causes for this. First, reports such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm by the National Academy of Sciences provides strong advocacy for increasing the resources towards education in science and engineering. Reports such as these, and this article, come from faculty and academics within these fields-of course they will advocate for more resources within their field. Second, engineering lacks a strong professional association such as the AMA or ADA. (The National Society of Professional Engineers PE license is only applicable to a small minority of current engineering jobs.) The consequence is that there is a lack of control on the supply and certification of engineering professionals.

            If there was truly a lack of engineers salaries would go up and in four years we’d have a bumper crop of young engineering students. There are plenty of good engineering schools a notch below (and more affordable than) UC-Berkeley.

          • BerkeleyDude

            In terms of salaries, it is pretty clear that Engineering salaries *are* going up. We do have a bumper crop of young engineering students. And yes, there are plenty of good engineering schools a notch below Berkeley. The challenge at Berkeley is that we have plenty of *Berkeley-calibre* (either at the admissions door or already here) students who want to take Engineering classes. Either we resource those classes properly, figure out some kind of magic filter that detects potential engineering interest and pre-emptively rejects students who apply undeclared or in other majors because they seem like they might get interested in engineering, or we degrade the quality of our educational experience by having students unable to get into classes that they want to take and are qualified to take.

            There are two different issues:

            1) The real problem with career trajectories in Engineering.

            2) The issue of whether we need to educate more people with engineering training.

            I think that (1) above is a real issue and can be largely attributed to issues other than oversupply. First, we have the problem of not really having a robust system of continuing education for Engineers — our journals are largely not written for practitioners and academic departments don’t really take practicing engineers seriously as a constituency.

            Second, we have the problem of patent-load and nondisclosure-load that weighs down engineers. When a lawyer develops a new argument or legal technique (or learns such things from their colleagues at one firm), they can take it with them to their next employer. (as distinct from details about a client where confidentiality applies) When a businessperson develops new personal and professional contacts, those contacts are carried with him to the next employer. (As distinct from customer lists.) This means that their employer has to keep raising their salary to keep the talent and know-how in house. But an engineer that develops a new technique or learns new ways of doing things lives under the cloud of patents and NDAs that block his ability to take these to another employer. This makes it easier to underpay her as well as making fresh employees a little more attractive since there is no potential lawsuit there. It also interacts with the problem of continuing education by creating barriers to practical conversations among practicing engineers whereby they could easily learn from one another.

            Third, there is the simple matter that law firms are run by lawyers. And most businesses are run by businesspeople. Whenever engineers let the business-folks or lawyers get in control at a firm, things get bad for engineers within a few years (and simultaneously bad for the business!). This interacts with both the second (it encourages policies that try to lock-in value) and the first (non-engineers don’t really care about career development for engineers).

            Fourth, there’s the issue of immigration and the challenge that it poses for the profession, largely through its interaction with short-term-thinking at non-engineer-run employers who focus on cutting labor costs, with no real concern about long-term value. Immigration also interacts with the first issue since an enormous supply of fresh foreign students masks the need for higher-ed to address the educational needs of practicing engineers. (But on balance, the biggest problem here is the immigration of engineers who haven’t been vetted in any way through an accredited United States’ educational system — having people come here to earn degrees and then work is not really what’s driving down employment prospects for graduates in the field. The problem is the folks who come in supposedly because of their skills, but in reality because of their lower costs.)

            Among those four, the first is pretty much in our hands and the second is an issue where stronger advocacy is needed to tear down the laws that enable companies to create barriers for engineer mobility in the same field. For the third, we can and should educate our engineers to be able to found and lead enterprises on their own, and strategically, we should support the development of strong institutions (public or nonprofit or whatever) that will allow for engineering-led firms to focus on engineering-oriented problems without losing their competitive edge.

            But none of these change the need for more people in tomorrow’s world to have engineering training. The world is changing. Even completely traditional areas like matchmaking and advertising are being transformed by technology and engineering thinking. Students get that. That’s why they want to take engineering classes.

  • BerkeleyDude

    The reality is simple: UC Berkeley is spectacularly good in lots of areas, but recently, a lot more students want to be in Engineering. It costs money (lab space, TAs, and faculty time) to educate engineers, just as it does for other subjects. Scaling up faculty numbers is always going to be a slow process since hiring faculty takes a lot of time and is a long-term commitment (faculty are in it for the long haul). Nobody expects the university to be able to resolve the faculty squeeze immediately. Nor would it be wise to let faculty hiring be driven by today’s enrollment numbers. The university should look at averaged long-term projections and simply allow the Engineering departments to hire faculty if they are below their average long-term projected stable targets. The same as they should do for all excellent departments on campus.

    Where the university can be responsive is in giving Engineering enough of the tuition money paid by students to hire TAs and support staff and to renovate labs so that classes can scale to student demand while still delivering a very good educational experience. (A good course secretary and extra TAs and readers and tutors can make it possible to increase course size without diminishing the class experience by much —- what matters is that undergrad students get enough attention from TAs on their homework and course projects. To some extent, reducing the number of students per TA can compensate for an increased number of students per Prof.) The campus can also realize that once a lecture class gets large, not all the students will attend in-person lectures so more students can easily be added to a class than there is room to hold in the lecture hall.

    These two topics is where the University seems to have its head in the sand. It claims that it is short of cash-flow now to be able to pay for TAs (and there are plenty of supersharp bright undergrads who would make excellent TAs for their fellow students). But somehow, shortages of cash-flow now didn’t seem to stop the University from spending more than half a billion dollars on sports-related complexes by simply borrowing the money. The State’s engineering-related industry (and the taxes paid by those employees, if not those companies) is almost certainly a better financial bet than sports. Yet, when it comes to supporting the classes and majors that students actually want to take (and who CA Industry really wants to hire), the campus must be “fiscally responsible” whereas when it comes to building a stadium, debt financing is just fine using 100 year bonds.

  • alcibiades415

    i just dropped out… six years of mechanical engineering at CSU Chico and no degree. Anyone wanna ask me anything?

Author

Aarti Shahani

Aarti Shahani is a reporter at KQED, focusing on business and technology. She came to San Francisco as a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She was part of the ProPublica team awarded an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for Post Mortem – a series examining the unregulated coroner and medical examiner industry. Shahani got her Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship and a Public Service Fellowship. She studied globalization as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was raised in Flushing, Queens – in the nation’s most diverse zip code.

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