Lies and statistics: 600,000 Chinese engineers


Everybody "knows" that China produced 600,000 engineers in 2004 (as compared to 70,000 in the United States), but Carl Bialik at the Wall Street Journal [corrected 9:30am] smelled something funny, so he chased the source of the numbers to see whether this "fact" was indeed true. It wasn't. NPR interviewed a Duke professor whose class undertook their own investigation of these bogus numbers. The US number is really closer to 140,000. The count of Indian engineers? Nobody really knows. Deans of universities don't even know how many colleges belong to their university! China was even stranger.

The Chinese central government in Beijing had simply decided that 600,000 is the number of engineers they want China to graduate each year. "The government has told the provinces that they have to graduate more engineers, so the provinces tell the government what they want to hear."

If the central government decrees that the country will produce 600,000 engineers, then by golly, that's what the official statistics will say, what a surprise.

Comments (43)
  1. Dan McCarty says:

    It doesn’t really matter whether the number is true anymore.  You just need to get one semi-respected publication to publish your bogus number once, and from then on, you’re golden.  Once one journalist has published the number, other journalists rarely check to see whether it’s legitimate or not.

    IIRC there’s a famous account of how someone–I forget who, but I’m sure others will remember–was able to get a well-respected newspaper to publish their fictional number of how many web pages were out there, which in turn gave investors a formula to calculate their market share and drove their stock price to the stratosphere.

  2. Mario Cariggi says:

    There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

    Benjamin Disraeli

  3. Sheeshers says:

    I might be slow and dumb, but why are we worried about this? What difference does it make how many Chinese, US and Indian engineers there are?

    Or are you simply trying to point out how flawed those numbers are.

  4. Even if they produce 200,000 engineers it is still a huge number of cheap competitors to the US workers.

  5. Mike Woodhouse says:

    Even if the Chinese universities are successfully meeting the Government’s requirement (well, it could happen, I suppose: maybe they’re better at it than the Russians were) there’s a quality issue. While from the UK I probably shouldn’t comment on the relative skills of the two countries’ engineers at graduation, I’d guess it’s likely that the US may still be ahead in this regard.

    OK, it’s not China, but I had the interesting (Chinese euphemism intended) experience of working with a group of Romanian developers a few years back. These individuals had studied C++ for four years. Yes, apparently it’s true: a four-year university course in C++, delivered somewhere in Transylvania.

    While this might seem very useful, it rapidly became apparent from a code read-through that they hadn’t touched on any aspect of software design that had been introduced later than, say 1985. They had managed to implement precisely one class that was not an auto-generated MFC UI component. And that class was a relatively trivial one. Concepts such as encapsulation, abstraction and other baseline OO words were met with bewildered shrugs.

    I recruited a small team of English developers to build version 2. They rapidly ceame frustrated and, having never been presented with a non-compete agreement, left to set up their own competing business. Sadly, I couldn’t join them, having signed just such an agreement myself. Five years later they’re still going. The firm for which he had worked went under four years ago, with the Romanians still on board, I understand.

    So I’d have to agree that in this case at least (as in so many others) the "statistics" aren’t telling us the story we should be hearing.

  6. asmguru62 says:

    I suppose, USSR taught chinese officials quite well :-)

  7. kbiel says:

    >Even if they produce 200,000 engineers it is still a huge number of cheap competitors to the US workers.

    It depends on what kinds of engineers we are talking about.  Also, I would say that environment has something to do with the success of the engineers.  Can anyone imagine Edison trying to work in communist China?

    Chinese Official: What you want to invent things for profit?!?  Do we need to send you in for re-education?

    Edison: Well, I have this idea that we can get rid of our dangerous gas lights by using electricity.

    Chinese Official: But that is not what you were assigned to produce.  We want a better steam engine than the capitalist Americans.  You are to produce a better steam engine!

    Edison: But I believe steam power has reached the peak of its development.

    Chinese Official: Don’t let anyone hear you say that.  Do something to make it look like you have produced a more efficient, more powerful steam engine….

  8. BryanK says:

    Dan McCarty — perhaps you’re thinking of Paul Graham?  He didn’t estimate the number of web pages out there, though, he estimated the number of web stores, at 5000.  (Then claimed that with 1000 customers, his company had 20%.)  See http://www.paulgraham.com/submarine.html

    > Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We

    > estimated, based on some fairly informal

    > math, that there were about 5000 stores on

    > the Web. We got one paper to print this

    > number, which seemed neutral enough. But once

    > this "fact" was out there in print, we could

    > quote it to other publications, and claim

    > that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online

    > store market.

    > This was roughly true. We really did have the

    > biggest share of the online store market, and

    > 5000 was our best guess at its size. But the

    > way the story appeared in the press sounded a

    > lot more definite.

    See also this footnote in that essay: http://www.paulgraham.com/submarine.html#f4n

    Which has to do with the number of computers infected by the Morris worm.

  9. Mihai says:

    Mike: "somewhere in Transylvania"

    I think this is true for any country: you have engineers and "so called engineers," you have 10% universities, and 90% so called universities.

    I am from Romania, and I know of only 3 universities with decent CS departments: Bucharest, Timisoara, Iasi.

    But (like everywhere else) graduating from there does not automatically make you a good engineers.

    Do you know of any university doing that for 100% of the graduates?

  10. Dileepa P says:

    The fact of the matter is that India and China each produce more engineers than the US. But, that in no way should hide the fact that the quality of engineers graduating out of US universities is much better than those from India/China.

  11. All these engineers must explain why internet traffic is doubling every 100 days ;-)

    http://www.economist.com/printedition/PrinterFriendly.cfm?Story_ID=1234733

  12. bramster says:

    I think maybe a lot of people here have their heads in the sand.

    Obviously, there are enough good Chinese engineers being produced. . .   and their only knowledge of english is "Made in China".  

    And a lot of that is quality stuff.  Consider "Giant" bicycles.

  13. Sheeshers says:

    Dileepa says…."

    The fact of the matter is that India and China each produce more engineers than the US. But, that in no way should hide the fact that the quality of engineers graduating out of US universities is much better than those from India/China. "

    Of course Dileepa has no clue but that’s a separate matter. A quick visit to Dileepa’s latest blog post indicates that Dileepa does not know how to spell the word "inconsistent". Dileepa should not be commenting on the quality of Chinese and Indian engineers, although thankfully this is a democratic society and not a communist regime. So Dileepa has the freedom to say anything about the quality of Chinese and Indian engineers, but definitely not the ability.

  14. Whaaaa?! says:

    Sheeshers: Can you spell "non sequitur"? Even if you can, you’re still a jackass.

  15. Claw says:

    "The government has told the provinces that they have to graduate more engineers, so the provinces tell the government what they want to hear."

    Looks like the government didn’t learn its lesson from the Great Leap Forward.  In order to appear better off, the provinces told the governments the amount of grain they were able to produce, moved crops around during inspections, and overplanted many fields.  As a result, even more crops died, while the government still continued to take its quota.  It didn’t help matters that workers were being moved off the fields and into industry because the numbers looked so good.  Sadly, it led to one of the largest famines in human history.

  16. Free Tibet says:

    Do they count the engineers from other contries like Tibet and Taiwan?

  17. Dileepa P says:

    Sheeshers:

    Why not? I am an Indian. I should know better than you, whoever you are!

    About the spelling, who cares? It’s not my fault that English is such a complicated language. Learn an Indian language to understand how easy they are to speak, listen and write.

    And, you decided on my ability to comment on things based on a spelling mistake? You sure sound like a racist to me!

  18. Cooney says:

    Why not? I am an Indian. I should know better than you, whoever you are!

    After all, only Indians can look up government stats. Seriously, though, if a dean at a uni doesn’t know how many colleges he has, does it matter how many engineers he produces?

    > You sure sound like a racist to me!

    No, he’s just being a smartass. He’s right though – you haven’t provided much of value. All you do is assert that India produces more engineers (more than 140k?). China’s number has shown to be a fabrication due to their command economy, and nobody really knows how many Indian engineers there are in India, so how ’bout it – back up your statements or go away.

    As an aside, playing the race card just makes you look stupid.

  19. JenK says:

    Given that India and China both have more people than the US, it should not be surprising if they produced more engineers. More per capita would be a more interesting, but the WP article notes that Duke’s numbers show "more U.S. degrees per million residents than in either other nation."

    I am curious as to how they are counting engineers. Are they counting just Professional Engineers? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_Engineer) Or are they counting software engineers, military engineers, railroad engineers?  How about equipment techs, field service engineers, or helpdesk techs – and how do you normalize for all the different definitions?

    If country A counts a significant number of equipment/service techs as engineers, and B doesn’t, the average skills of country A’s "engineers" are going to be "less qualified" than the B’s. Not because A’s aren’t good at what they do, but because it’s not a valid comparison. Toss in systematic & language differences, and I would expect we can’t get a valid comparison. (But then I’m a tester; I expect breakage.)

  20. catg says:

    bramster:

      Bicycles from "Giant" are not made in China. They are made in Taiwan.

  21. Jayakrishnan K says:

    The fact is that the number of engineering colleges has increased tremendously in India during the past 10 years. Prior to that most of the colleges were run by the government. The entry of the private players in the education sector resulted in this increase. It is also a fact that 10 years ago, it was difficult to get into an engineering college in India. You had to have high marks, aptitude and be somewhere in the top 10% of your batch to gain an entry. Today practically anyone can study to be an engineer.

    A second factor is the availability of good professors / teachers. Other than the topnotch institutes like IIT, most of the other engineering colleges can’t afford to retain good teachers. All the good ones tend to get much better offers from the software industry. Again it’s the students who suffer, ending up getting trained by "Teachers" who could not get a job somewhere else. Again there are exceptions but extremely few.

    So while the total number of engineers in India has gone up, the overall quality has certainly declined.

  22. Roger says:

    "Chinese Official: What you want to invent things for profit?!?  Do we need to send you in for re-education?"

    China has always had a history of making stuff up. Until the recent boom of the internet, China had a very strict control of information within its country. So people will believe anything their government tells them.

    Ironically, because of the government’s power, China is one of the fastest developing nations. If there’s a body to solve energy crisis/global warming/whatever, it’s most likely to be China. (Their solution might not be a good one, but it’ll get done)

  23. Jay says:

    There was a time when no one competed against the USA.  But now the world is competing against us.  China may not have 600,000 engineers graduate yearly…but only 25 years ago they didnt have 1000 engineers graduate.  Today Pakistan has 7,000 software developers graduate yearly…only 25 years ago it was illegal to import computers in Pakistan.  The world is getting competitve folk…in 25 years how many Software Developers will Pakistan and China have?  That is the real question.

  24. competition? says:

    Competing against you? Maybe other countries  just wanted their own engineers, and at the rate their economies are growing, China/India need them, too.

    Please try and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around the US, not every action is either done for or against your benefit. You are competing against the world, just like everyone else. Not the other way round.  

  25. Dileepa P says:

    Cooney:

    I am not a statistician. I am an engineer. Moreover, I have better things to do. If you are so interested in actual numbers, why don’t YOU do the research? The world (except the US) knows that India produces more engineers than the US.

    The world doesn’t revolve around the United States… really! (FYI, it revolves around the Sun :) )

    And what’s the problem with India producing more engineers compared to the US? What’s wrong with that? Regarding the dean not knowing the number of colleges, my guess is that India has so many new colleges coming up that he/she is unable to keep track of the number :).

    Yeah, the “racist” comment was uncalled for, but I didn’t like the tone of his comment and that’s what I felt.

  26. J says:

    "Competing against you? Maybe other countries  just wanted their own engineers, and at the rate their economies are growing, China/India need them, too."

    And why do you think a country would want its own engineers?  So they don’t have to hire foreign engineers.  So the foreign engineers lose business to the locals.  That’s called competition.

  27. Cooney says:

    Dileepa:

    > I am not a statistician. I am an engineer. Moreover, I have better things to do. If you are so interested in actual numbers, why don’t YOU do the research? The world (except the US) knows that India produces more engineers than the US.

    You made the claim, so you get to back it up.

    > And what’s the problem with India producing more engineers compared to the US?

    Nothing. I just don’t believe you.

    > Regarding the dean not knowing the number of colleges, my guess is that India has so many new colleges coming up that he/she is unable to keep track of the number :).

    You don’t even know what a dean is, do you? A Dean runs a university. A university contains a handful of colleges, which don’t change in number all that much. If I met a dean who didn’t know this number, I’d write them off as incompetent.

    I hope you engineer stuff better than you argue :)

  28. David Conrad says:

    "I had the … experience of working with a group of Romanian developers a few years back. … Concepts such as encapsulation, abstraction and other baseline OO words were met with bewildered shrugs."

    Maybe they only spoke Romanian. :-)

    I’m reminded of something Feynman wrote about the Challenger disaster investigation, when some point was said to have been supported by 200 engineers (or somesuch), and he commented that in such a large group there would inevitably be a wide range of talent.

    I’m sure there are some bad Romanian, Indian, and Chinese engineers out there. And some good ones, and a few superstars. And there are plenty of bad US engineers. If the US does have any edge in quality, we can’t expect to keep it, at least not without working at it.

  29. Dileepa P says:

    Cooney:

    You obviously do not know how things work outside of the United States. New engineering colleges are being started every year back in India. A lot of them specifically cater to those who want to take up the Electronics/IT fields.

    Have a look here. This isn’t even the full list.

    http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~sodani/indian-colleges.html

    I do know what a dean is. My answer was a direct response to your question (you can read what you wrote).

    You have absolutely no right to ask me to "go away". There is a whole world outside the US. Have a look and understand that world to know the realities. Or, live a life full of assumptions in the United "World" of America.

    It really doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not. What matters is the reality. And, you just don’t get it!

  30. Cooney says:

    You obviously do not know how things work outside of the United States.

    The point is that I do – it’s entirely reasonable to expect that China demands 600k engineers each year, so that is what is reported. India is a question mark. If you want to claim that they exceen 140k engineers/year, then you should be prepared to back that up.

    > I do know what a dean is.

    Then why didn’t you get my joke?

    > You have absolutely no right to ask me to "go away".

    Sure I do. You’re being arrogant and offering no evidence to back up your claiims. All you do is bluster that I’m ignorant of the big bad world.

    > What matters is the reality. And, you just don’t get it!

    You don’t get it. Insulting me is not a valid tactic if you want to win an argument. I am fully aware of the world outside my country. I daresay that I’m more aware than you, and that irritates you.

  31. roy says:

    Here’s another twist.  In Canada, you cannot simply call yourself an "Engineer".  When you graduate, you are an "Engineer in training", or something to that effect.  You need your P.Eng (Professional Engineer) title which requires you to be 18 (I think) years old, and have a number of years experience, as well as to write an ethics test.

    Depending on the country you come from, the word "Engineer" can have different standards.  If someone does have their P.Eng, care to comment on this?

  32. Dileepa P says:

    Cooney:

    There is a reason I was not quoting any hard facts. Because there just aren’t any! Whom do you believe? CNN? WSJ? Rediff?

    http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/biztech/10/04/india.jobs.reut/index.html

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/19/AR2006051901760.html

    http://in.rediff.com/news/2004/feb/17akd.htm

    If you read the article on Rediff, it says 350,000 engineering seats. How many seats actually get filled is the first question. And how many actually manage to pass-out is the next question.

    CNN says 200,000 graduates.

    Duke University research says 112,000.

    A quick search on a search engine of your choice will bring up many results. That is what I tried the moment I read this blog post. And I didn’t read anything to make me change my opinion.

  33. Cooney says:

    So, maybe you should’ve said something like that first off. We’ve established that India graduates somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000 engineers. Now all we have to do is figure out is the quality of the education. IIT is probably fine, but I’d think twice about the institute of last year.

    Now then, can India Fly?
    http://economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=7004433

    [This line of discussion long ago ceased being productive. Please do not prolong it. -Raymond]
  34. CRM says:

    A relative of mine is a professor at a major Canadian university.  He says his Chinese grad students are heading back to China after graduating now because they can get better jobs and make *more money* in China.  They are definitely not CHEAP competition, but they are quality competition, and as an engineer I’m happy to compete on the basis of quality.

  35. BryanK says:

    Aww, but I wanted to comment that "WSJ" is the Wall Street Journal, not the Washington Post, and say something about the "usual" political leanings of each organization!

    :-P

    Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to go back to making random not-so-helpful-after-all comments in the AA/ClearType post.  ;-)

  36. Will Work For Food says:

    As an indian who studied in the US..I have to agree that , in general, the quality of engineers  in the US is better. Obviously, if you compare individual universities, against each other, then  things may be different.

    IITs in India, have students that are the cream of the crop. Students graduating from there, are smart, and extreemely competitive, and will hold their own against graduates from most other universities. As you go lower down the system, the quality of engineers steadily deteriorates. But you can expect that in the US too.

    One distinction between US and indian education, is that in most indian engineering schools (like the Romanian university someone mentioned) you will only learn engineering, and *nothing* else. You do not have the option of taking a language class, or learning anythign else that is not related to engineering. So in general, i have found that american engineers are generally more well rounded, and smarter than indian engineers..

    Universities are also organized a lot differently in india, so it wouldn’t surpsise me if the dean had no idea how many engineergin schools were under him/her..Way engineering schools in india are organized, alligns itself more with the way public school districts are organized.

  37. Brian Duffy says:

    Homeless advocates are notorious for this too. Based on figures released in 1999, there should be 4,000,000 homeless in NYC.

  38. Billg says:

    Disraeli didn’t say that. Sandburg did.

  39. ho ho ho says:

    The "truth discount" factor to a typical chinese/indian propaganda number is not 50%.  It is more between 95-99%.

    The real number of engineers produced is between 6,00 and 12,000.

  40. Kevin says:

    Hi, guys, come on! I think none of you guys know little about China. Some stupid guy even asked other country outside China, such as TaiWan and Tibet which are indeed belongs to China. This is really a stupid topic i would say.

  41. GregM says:

    Kevin, I think it’s you that missed the point.  That "stupid guy"’s name was "Free Tibet".  I’m pretty sure that he knows that China claims ownership of Taiwan and Tibet, but was commenting that some people, such as their residents, consider them to be separate countries.

Comments are closed.