One of the reasons Asia has become the factory of the world is that, while Asian universities are producing record numbers of engineers, their counterparts in much of the rest of the world -- including the United States -- are graduating lawyers, accountants and psychologists.
Before I tell you my grand theory about why Asians are more geared toward engineering, let's look at the figures.
The U.S. National Science Foundation says that, in sheer volume, China is the world's leading producer of engineers: It graduates around 220,000 a year. By comparison, the United States graduates about 60,000 a year, South Korea 57,000, Mexico 24,000, Brazil 18,000, Colombia 11,000, Chile 4,000 and Argentina 3,000.
A separate report by the Engineering Trends consulting firm shows that, measured on a per-capita basis, South Korea produces the most engineers annually, followed by Taiwan and Japan. By comparison, Colombia ranks 19th, Chile 23rd, Mexico 24th, the United States 25th, China 30th, Brazil 35th and Argentina 37th.
Regardless how we count it -- and there is some skepticism about some of the data, since not all countries have the same standards for giving out engineering degrees -- there is no dispute that Asian countries are far ahead in the game.
"Falling behind is dangerous, because it affects countries' manufacturing capabilities," says Engineering Trends founder Richard Heckel. "Manufacturing is an ever-changing scene. If you don't innovate, you don't compete."
Development experts say that, if a country wants to be a manufacturing powerhouse, it needs people who can produce existing goods in more efficient ways, and people who can constantly come up with new products. This means they need engineers on both sides of the production cycle.
In the United States, the number of college engineering students is stagnant: It's higher than it was in 1980, when it stood at about 58,000, but lower than it was at its 1986 peak, when it reached 77,000, according to NSF estimates.
In Latin America, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM, produces about 620 psychology graduates a year, but only 40 graduates in petroleum engineering, according to its statistical yearbook. And Argentina's University of Buenos Aires, UBA, produces 2,400 lawyers a year, 1,300 psychologists and only 240 engineers, according to official figures.
Argentina's education minister, Daniel Filmus, told me with horror in an interview earlier this year that, upon taking his job, he discovered that his country graduated only three textile engineers a year. The education ministry has since created a private sector-supported fund that offered 30 scholarships a year to study engineering, and immediately received 270 applications, he said.
"We are trying to steer students toward sciences and engineering," Filmus said. "Now, all of the education ministry's scholarships go to needy students who want to study hard sciences or engineering."
What are Asian countries doing to get so many young people to study engineering? In addition to having a market demand for engineers and in many cases a culture that venerates scientists and engineers nearly as much as rock stars, there is a top-to-bottom government encouragement, experts say.
"In many Asian countries, the highest levels of government talk about how important science and engineering are to achieve economic growth," says Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Here, the scientific community has often to convince policy makers that science is critical to economic growth."
After talking with Leshner, it dawned on me that whereas China's President Hu Jintao has a degree in hydraulics engineering, in this part of the world we have almost everything but engineers in office.
The United States has a president who got a B.A. degree in history, and a master's in business administration. In Latin America, most presidents are lawyers
Perhaps it's time to elect engineers as presidents. Or, what would be more realistic, to press the lawyers, economists, psychiatrists and others who are in power now to use their positions to steer more young people into science and engineering.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.