A Tsunami of Talent

I am in Beijing and Shanghai for a few days.  The reason for my being in China is to chair the International Review Board at Tsinghua University where we are reviewing the Department of Industrial Engineering.

The basic statistics are chilling.  In the U.S., 4% of undergraduates matriculate in engineering. Of those that graduate, 12% continue to graduate school.  Thus, roughly 0.5% of college graduates in the U.S. have advanced degrees in engineering.

In China, 40% of undergraduates matriculate in engineering.  At Tsinghua at least, of those that graduate, 67% continue to graduate school.  While it is risky to generalize, this leads to an estimate that 25% of college graduates in China have advanced degrees in engineering.

I may be off, perhaps by quite a bit, but 0.5% versus 25% is a rather daunting difference.  If this compounds year are year, decade after decade, the consequences could be astounding.

The students at Tsinghua are extraordinary.  One in ten thousand Chinese young people qualify for acceptance.  Their English proficiency is rather amazing; their abilities to articulate their views in English are even more impressive.  This is due in part to their use of English textbooks for their classes, as well as a wealth of project-oriented courses where they must put the content of these books to use.

The department head, Gavriel Salvendy, a Hungarian-born American, has spearheaded an effort to enhance the abilities of these students for creative and independent thinking.  When these abilities are combined with the students’ diligent mastery of math, science, and language, Tsinghua is fostering a large cadre of formidable competitors in the global talent pool.

My first impression of Beijing is laced with adjectives such as big, new, modern and busy. Soaring modern buildings are steadily replacing somber grey buildings of the 1960s, 70s and perhaps 80s.  As we drive through the city, pedestrians and cars jostle to make their ways across the street or around other vehicles, some have stopped in the middle of a crowded thoroughfare on one errand or another.

On this holiday weekend (the Chinese equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S.), I join hoards of people streaming up and down the irregular steps of the Great Wall.  It is quite the exercise, compared to the stroll I expected.  The next morning, my upper legs know that I used them quite differently than usual.  But hiking on a beautiful crisp, sunny day is a favorite of mine.

The next day, the sky is overcast with pollution, replacing the sunny bright blue sky of the day before.  The day after that, it is worse, the mountains having disappeared. Every day and every hour, we encounter huge numbers of people first learning to drive late in life, combined with herds of pedestrians who wander across streets into oncoming traffic.  This provides a strong visual image of change. Beijing, and China in general, has challenges of not only transportation, but also energy and healthcare.

The talented undergraduates and graduates at Tsinghua and other increasingly strong Chinese universities will help the nation to address these challenges.  My sense is that the solutions they devise will have value beyond China.  This will create increasing competitive advantage and economic benefits for this tsunami of talent.  0.5% versus 25% is really a big difference.


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