Even Tech Execs Can't Get Kids to be Engineers
by Ann Grimes, The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2005, Pg. B1
Vinod Dham is among a growing number of technology executives warning that the U.S. faces an engineer shortage. To stay globally competitive, he says, the nation must do better at steering its youth toward engineering careers. Mr. Dham knows how hard that is: He can't persuade his own kids to go into engineering.
The 54-year-old Mr. Dham would seem to be a prime role model. His engineering degree lifted him from his humble origins in India into a 16-year career at Intel Crop., where he became well-known for helping create the Pentium chip. His older son, 22-year-old Ankush, is studying economics, and that's fine with Mr. Dham, who says he couldn't get him interested enough to develop the rigor required for engineering. But ever since his younger son, 19-year-old Rajeev was a boy Mr. Dham has been urging him to pursue engineering -- and he, too, is going into economics. Rajeev "doesn't want to do electrical engineering," the elder Mr. Dham laments. "He tells me the job will be outsourced."
Silicon Valley is doing a lot of hand-wringing these days about a coming engineer shortage. Tech leaders such as Cisco Systems Inc.'s John Chambers and Stanford University President John Hennessey warn that the U.S. will lose its edge without homegrown talent. The U.S. now ranks 17th world-wide in the number of undergraduate engineers and natural scientists it produces, they point out; that's down from 1975, when the U.S. was No. 3 (after Japan and Finland).
But some of the nation's tech elite-including many immigrants who benefited greatly from engineering careers -- are finding even their own children shun engineering. One oft-cited reason: concern that dad and his contemporaries will ship such jobs overseas.
Venture capitalist Promod Haque, for example, is in an ironic bind when it comes to advising his own kids. Like many other Silicon Valley financiers, Mr. Haque has recently begun funding tech start-ups in India and urging U.S. tech entrepreneurs to outsource from the start by forming companies that split operations between U.S. and India. Mr. Haque chuckles about a recent dinner conversation with his college-age daughter, who he hoped would go into engineering just as he did. "She said, 'Dad, I'm not going to take any more computer-science classes,'" he recalls. "I asked her why. She looked at me straight and said, 'I don't want to go to India to get a job.'"
Experts cite a variety of other reasons for the U.S.'s engineer shortage, including poor math and science curricula in public schools. And there is also a persistent image problem. A recent study of 2,800 of Silicon Valley's youth by consultants A.T. Kearney found that 73% were familiar with high-tech careers buy only 32% wanted to pursue them. In describing tech careers, students in the study used a variety of unflattering terms, including "intimidating" and "uninteresting." Others said they considered engineers to be "socially awkward" or "obsessed with work." Some female respondents linked computer engineering with work that is "tedious" or "antisocial."
That was the case for Susan Mason's two stepdaughters, Alexandra and Joanna. Ms. Mason, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a background in computer engineering, says she urged the girls to consider engineering when they were in high school. They ignored her advice: Alexandra became an audiologist and Joanna went into nursing.
They felt that engineering was too solitary, even if they were working in a team environment," Ms. Mason recalls. "They wanted to have more interactions with people on a 'human' level," she says.
Mr. Mason recalls one talk where she and her husband warned the girls: "You understand you are taking the vow of poverty here? You know there is a big money delta here." The irony, she says, is that many young people in the Valley can opt for less lucrative professions because their engineering parents have done so well.
C.L. Max Nikias, dean of the University of Southern California's engineering school, says another problem is that colleges aren't able to keep students in the field who show initial interest: About 120,000 students start off in engineering in U.S. colleges and universities, but only half ever earn an engineering degree. Mr. Niklaus has set up programs at USC -- including an updated curriculum and a career-oriented speakers program -- that are helping to retain students, he says.
But things haven't worked as well at home. Mr. Nikias's daughter, now a 20-year-old junior at USC, initially appeared to heed her father's advice that she become an engineer. Georgiana Nikias is good at math and science. Early in college she took six core classes that engineering students take at USC.
But then she ditched engineering for an English major. "In engineering, you truly have a chance to invent something or push society forward technologically," she says, but "I didn't love it enough to make a huge difference in that field." She wants to write science fiction, instead, or maybe go into law.
Mr. Mikias strongly supports women who pursue engineering degrees. So he felt that "if she trained in this profession, the sky would be the limit in terms of opportunities." he says. "I did try. [But] I'm not a good example of farming my own kids into the profession."
Kanwal Rekhi, a graduate of India's Institute of Technology and former chief technology officer at Novell Inc., says he very much wanted his son to become an engineer. But his son ignored his urgings, saying he thought the work would be too tedious. He graduated from film school instead. Mr. Rekhi says he also tried to persuade his 16 nieces and nephews to go into engineering. He even offered to tutor some of them in math. Not one took him up on that. "They said it was too hard," he says.
For Mr. Dham's younger son, the California lifestyle that an engineering career brought the family is one reason he is spurning engineering. Rajeev Dham worries that an engineering career these days might take him out of the state as outsourcing erodes engineering jobs there. "One of my older cousins is an engineer, and he was shipped out to Cleveland, where it's snowing and stuff," he says. "Obviously that factors into people's decisions. People who live in California want to stay in California, you know."
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