EE Times Online: "Alarming Export: Engineers"

By David Lammers

November 14, 2005

Ted Rappaport came to Austin just a few years ago to set up a wireless-technology center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Wireless Networking and Communications Group, which Rappaport directs, has attracted a dozen corporate sponsors and 14 world-class faculty to the wireless center. It is a huge success story.

But there are two problems, and they are related.

The wireless group has 70 students — all but five of them graduate students. Nearly all of them are from China, India and other non-U.S. countries. They gain entry by attaining essentially perfect scores on the graduate record exams.

The first problem is that the vast majority of these students now want to go home, either immediately after earning their graduate degrees or after getting a few years of work experience. And the problem is not confined to the University of Texas at Austin. Rappaport went to the University of Florida not too long ago to give an invited lecture on wireless technology. He asked the Chinese students there how many of them planned to go home right after earning their graduate degrees. About two-thirds raised their hands. He then rephrased the question, asking how many would want to go home after working in the United States for a few years. All of them raised their hands.

Going home wasn't a very attractive option a decade or two ago, when all the good jobs were in America. Now, there are plenty of good jobs back home.

There's nothing wrong with going home. As the cliché reminds us, that's where the heart is. Most people ultimately feel most comfortable on their own turf, with their own culture, living near family, speaking their native language. But America's success has been about having so much to offer that turning one's back on the comforts of home becomes an acceptable trade-off.

The second, related problem is that so few U.S.-born students are gaining entry to U.S. engineering graduate schools. Some universities, such as Rice in Houston, are establishing scholarships targeted to American citizens. Some American-born engineering grad students say they feel isolated, with few friends to talk to in the cafeteria. How ironic is that?

We want bright foreign students — lots of them — to come to America. We want Them to become Us. But if U.S. taxpayers are going to spend their tax dollars to set up wireless-technology centers, they have a right to expect a reasonable share of the benefits. We need to keep more of those bright, foreign-born engineers in America, working here, starting companies here, putting down roots here.

And there are plenty of jobs to fill, especially in the wireless sector. Motorola intends to hire 250 people by the end of 2006 for its Austin Center of Excellence. Those research jobs are aimed at developing Motorola's 4G technology, including Linux and Java software. Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and other large companies are establishing or growing their own wireless centers in Austin. Freescale Semiconductor is hiring, selectively, for its wireless operations.

Alereon, an ultrawideband startup with about 80 employees, has a dozen job openings for UWB RF engineers and digital-ASIC and baseband designers. PropheSI, a startup focused on power amplifiers for cellular basestations, has its own list of job openings, which CEO Graham Haddock said are increasingly hard to fill.

Texas has succeeded in attracting premier wireless scholars such as Rappaport, succeeded in attracting some of the smartest students in the world to the Austin campus' wireless-communications group, succeeded in creating job openings at companies large and small. The academic, corporate and political leadership should be commended for creating such momentum.

The next phase should be to balance the student body better, so that women from the suburbs or Hispanic students from the Rio Grande Valley, for example, feel welcome. U.S. students should be sought after and granted scholarships. We need affirmative action, of sorts, at the engineering schools of our great universities.

Meanwhile, American companies must attract foreign graduate students and quickly bring them into decision-making roles — a different form of affirmative action. The human resources managers at most U.S. corporations need retraining in how to make non-U.S.-born employees feel like they are on track to better jobs.

Without these adjustments, we may be left with a major mismatch: spending tax dollars on graduate programs to train engineers who go home to Shanghai or Bangalore to work, leaving U.S.-based companies searching for the engineers they need to compete.

-David Lammers (dlammers@cmp.com), editor at-large for silicon engineering at EE Times

Source: EE Times Online, www.eetimes.com