Fueling High-Tech Industries

Monday, April 30, 2001

Something odd is happening in the market for highly educated workers. At a time when business executives are complaining about a shortage of highly skilled workers and agitating for increased immigration, university professors are fretting about a glut of Ph.D.’s.

To understand this apparent paradox, you have to recognize that being a university professor and working for a private business firm are different kinds of jobs, requiring different kinds of educational preparation. A Ph.D. in chemistry prepares a student well for teaching and research in the university. A master’s degree in chemical engineering will typically be more useful (and will certainly take less time) for someone who wants to develop innovative production processes in the private sector.

In recent decades, science and technology policy in the United States has emphasized Ph.D. training for future professors and neglected other kinds of training for people who will go to work in the private sector, but this was not always the case. The Morrill Act of 1862 used land grants to the states to fund new universities that would teach young people the "agricultural and mechanic arts." These A&M schools trained students for practical problem solving in our armories, hospitals, factories, and farms.

After World War II, government policy shifted dramatically. The new focus was to support the research done by university professors and to produce Ph.D. recipients who would become the next generation of professors. This made sense at a time when our university system was expanding rapidly. But in recent decades the growth in new positions for professors has slowed even as the number of graduate students has continued to grow. New Ph.D. recipients now find few full-time faculty jobs available. Undergraduate students naturally avoid what they see as dead-end careers in science.

Our universities need to provide students with the cutting-edge knowledge that will prepare them for rewarding careers outside the university.

We need to move back in the direction of our pre–World War II system and provide more support for the people who will drive innovation in the private sector. This will require that more of our undergraduate students receive degrees in science or engineering. It will also require new types of graduate programs, ones that differ from traditional Ph.D. programs just as a chemical engineering degree differs from a Ph.D. in chemistry. These new programs could be created in promising areas such as software development, network design, information security, and bioinformatics (or genomics). The new programs could give students cutting-edge knowledge yet prepare them for rewarding careers outside the university. If we create these programs and raise the number and ability of the students who enroll in existing programs, such as chemical and electrical engineering, we can sustain our leading position in high-tech industries. Moreover, we can do so without getting stuck in the dangerous and divisive position of having to import the people who actually develop the new technologies that drive economic growth.