Engineers and K-12

Harry J. Levinson

Editor's Note: The National Association of Scholars has just written Critical Care, as a plan to guide the federal and state responses to the financial damage the coronavirus pandemic will inflict on higher education. One of Critical Care’s proposals is to limit American universities’ dependence on foreign interests by requiring colleges and universities to have minimum proportions of American citizens in their undergraduate and graduate student bodies. Harry J. Levinson comments on this aspect of Critical Care, in the light of his experience as a manager in the semiconductor electronics industry.

As an engineering manager who regularly hired new engineers, over the course of several decades I began to notice a significant change in the applicant pool, which consisted primarily of students in graduate programs at America’s leading research universities. In the early 1980’s, the vast majority of job candidates were native-born Americans, yet by 2010, approximately 80% were foreign born. The students whom I hired in later years became excellent engineers, and I was very happy to have them in my department, but they were not noticeably better than the people hired decades before. Since the students were supported financially by research grants, regardless of their country of origin, the reason for the transformation did not appear financial. University faculties were apparently accepting students based on their academic capabilities, but our top universities were finding it necessary to look outside the United States to get the same quality of students that previously could be found at home.

Since American technology-based companies have been able to hire the engineering talent that they need to be successful, and unemployment reached very low levels in recent years (at least until COVID-19), it is reasonable to ask why it matters that the majority of new engineers are foreign-born. Surveys consistently show that people with technical degrees earn the highest salaries among college graduates, so native-born Americans are now working less in the most remunerative fields. A caste system is being developed, with American citizens moving towards the bottom. This is contrary to a common misconception that companies hire foreign-born engineers principally because they can be paid less. While there may be instances where managers hired foreign-born engineers because they were willing to work for low wages, in the industry in which I work, semiconductor electronics, the competition for talent is intense, with high salaries commanded by people with advanced technical degrees, regardless of their antecedents.

Many hypotheses have been put forth to explain this shift in the percentage of native-born Americans getting degrees in technical fields. For example, it has been postulated that students prefer business degrees in order to make more money, but, as noted, engineers make better money. Another conjecture is a lack of interest. This was likely a factor during the Cold War, when engineering students were subjected to anti-technology bias on campus, but it makes little sense for students today, who have grown up playing video games and chatting on smart phones.

So, why would American high school students not be applying in droves to earn degrees in fields that would allow them to do interesting work and get paid well at the same time? I postulate that high school students do not apply to study engineering in larger numbers because they know that they lack skill in mathematics, the most important prerequisite for becoming an engineer. Moreover, this deficiency is not something that can be overcome easily, because mathematics is fundamentally hierarchical. For example, in calculus, in order to apply the method of integration by partial fractions, one needs to be able to factor binomial expressions, and one cannot quickly do such factoring without the ability to perform simple mental arithmetic. The notion that calculators have obviated the need to learn arithmetic is valid so long as the most complicated math a person needs to do is balance a checkbook. For calculus and college level math, students need a proper foundation, starting with arithmetic, which many American students have not been adequately provided. By the time these students reach middle school, they are already seriously handicapped. The students recognize this, so they eschew majors that require skill in mathematics, such as engineering.

K-12 education deficiencies in the United States, in providing good preparation for engineering, are not limited to mathematics. Engineering requires logical and organized thinking. For years students were introduced to these topics in their English classes. Historical events were used as examples of causality. The decline in the level of rigor in the teaching of subjects such as English and History have been noted by many.

The inadequacies of K-12 education have uneven impact. Silicon Valley engineers can afford to send their children to private schools and supplement their math education with Kumon, but these are not affordable options for the people who clean their offices. The current situation in education has contributed significantly to the creation and sustaining of an underclass with a low level of mobility, something unprecedented in the first two centuries of the American republic.

In terms of solutions, immediate and substantial limitations on the hiring of foreign engineers is not practical. In our universities, the pipeline of new engineers is filled with people who received their K-12 education outside of the United States, and this cannot be changed quickly. Moreover, creating opportunities for American citizens requires much more than restricting jobs for noncitizens. There is no Wizard of Oz solution, where people can be made engineers by simply handing them a diploma.

Improving opportunities for native-born Americans will require improvement in K-12 education, and there has been some recent progress. Pedagogically sound programs such as Eureka Math are now being used in the majority of elementary schools, rather than New Math, New New Math, Ethnomathematics, Social Justice Math, Constructivist Math, Multicultural Math, and other programs that prevent students from gaining skill in mathematics. The problem remains that many pedagogically unsound programs have credence on the college campuses from which future teachers will be graduating. Well-intended efforts to improve K-12 education, such as those by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have been undermined by unsound ideas. Consider this analogy. Suppose that you want to build a bridge, and you enlist civil engineers trained by professors who taught them unsound theory. You should not be surprised if your bridge collapses.

The National Association of Scholars has undertaken valuable projects to address a number of problems on postmodern university campuses, such as neo-segregationConfucius Institutes, and the politicization of history. Perhaps the time has come to address the problematic Departments of Education.

Dr. Harry J. Levinson is Principal Lithographer at HJL Lithography, LLC.

Image: Taylor Wilcox, Public Domain

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