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Island of Technology
By María Bird Picó
Mar 13, 2003, 13:46

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- This island has become a gold mine for corporate recruiters looking for talented Hispanic engineering graduates.

The reason? The University of Puerto Rico's School of Engineering in Mayaguez boasts the largest number of Hispanic engineering students in the United States.

You read it right. The public university located on the western coast of the 3,500-square-mile island hosts 4,593 engineering students. Another local university, the privately-owned Universidad Politécnica, places second, with 3,776. They each have more than double the number of Hispanic engineering students as are enrolled at Texas A&M University, the main source of Hispanic engineers in the continental United States.

Puerto Rico's large pool of engineering students is not going unnoticed by U.S. employers. In October, UPR's job fair had a record-setting number of companies and federal agencies recruiting engineers: 74. The list includes the likes of Motorola, Raytheon Systems, IBM, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Some recruiters say we are the best kept secret in the engineering industry," says Nancy Nieves, placement department director at UPR's Mayaguez campus. "Recruiters are coming down by word of mouth."

Majority Status Helps

The 3.8 million Puerto Ricans are not a minority in their homeland, but considering the island's small size, bleak economic indicators, and a smaller pool of potential college students, the enrollment figures are eye-popping.

A closer look at Puerto Rico reveals unique factors that boost sign-ups at engineering schools.

The main one: a college degree has become the ticket out of economic stagnation. Since the 1960s, there has been a growing emphasis on educational attainment to secure better earnings and job opportunities. Strong demand from the local market and the continental U.S. for engineers, coupled with the proliferation of colleges, low tuition costs, and generous student aid, have eased this task.

"If a person doesn't study in Puerto Rico, it's for lack of interest," says Antonio Magriñá Rodríguez, research director for The College Board office in Puerto Rico. "When it comes to college studies, the offer is greater than the demand. There is a strong effort to promote education among our young population."

Plenty of Schools

By one measure, there are 45 private and public colleges in Puerto Rico offering at least a bachelor's degree. Only UPR and Politécnica have schools of engineering, though other institutions offer bachelor's degrees in one or two engineering fields.

Academic observers caution against drawing comparisons between Puerto Rico-based Hispanics and stateside Latinos, mainly because the first group does not face language and racial barriers. But statistics do help explain why there is a larger pool of engineering students on the Caribbean island. Take educational attainment rates. Hispanic Americans' 25 percent high-school dropout rate, the highest of all ethnic groups, is significantly higher than Puerto Rico's 16.7 percent. According to Puerto Rico's Department of Education, the local rate is believed to be lower, because it does not reflect the high mobility of families between the island and the continental U.S.

"The job market in the continental U.S. offers good job prospects for graduates of high school or trade schools, but not in Puerto Rico," says Augusto Amato, an economist at Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, the island's largest bank. "It's hard enough to get a job with a bachelor's degree. That is reason enough to finish high school and enroll in college."

Dog Eat Dog out There

It's survival of the fittest, considering Puerto Rico's 13 percent unemployment rate is the highest nationwide and almost triple that of the U.S. mainland. And in spite of a strong economy during recent years, the prospects of job creation are dim, because economic growth rates have been inadequate for a developing economy in which the income levels of 59 percent of the population fall within the U.S. federal government's poverty guidelines.

According to a major 1994 College Board report on college education in Puerto Rico, the limited job opportunities awaiting high-school graduates and the availability of the Pell grant incline many to the college option, though not all complete their degrees. With starting annual salaries that hover around $25,000, engineering has become a highly coveted career, especially since demand for these professionals is also strong.

A recent Banco Popular survey of 140 major Puerto Rico-based employers shows a need for technical professionals here, particularly computer, mechanical, and electrical engineers.

Financial Pressures

Puerto Rico's high cost of living, buoyed by high real estate prices and dependence on exports, prompts many workers to seek better job opportunities. Most of Politécnica's students already hold full-time jobs and are turning to engineering as a way to move up the ranks, says Gilberto Vélez, dean of engineering. That's the case with the more than 100 workers from the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority that attend Politécnica. The average annual salary of the agency's 558 engineers is $50,000, a good income in light of Puerto Rico's $30,860 family average.

"The title of engineer enjoys prestige, and there is demand for them," says Vélez. "A career in engineering also offers the flexibility of being your own boss."

There also has been a local shift to pursue degrees in science and engineering, a reverse of the trend in the continental United States, where more students are majoring in humanities and social and behavioral sciences.

No Slacking Up

The Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies reports that the number of B.Sc. degrees awarded in engineering has decreased by 17.2 percent in the past 10 years.

Not in Puerto Rico. While 8 percent of all SAT test-takers in the U.S. mentioned engineering as the intended college major in 1999, Puerto Rico's figure is higher, at 12 percent. A comparable figure is not available for Hispanic Americans, but a report put out by the University of California's Higher Education Research Institute says that Hispanics accounted for only 5.1 percent of freshmen intending to major in engineering in 1996.

"Hispanic engineering enrollment is growing, but very slowly and not on parity," says Al Staropoli, national director for math and science for Aspira, a nonprofit organization devoted to the education and leadership development of Latino youth.

Rock-Bottom Costs

Part of the reason why a larger share of Puerto Ricans opt for college is the relatively low cost of higher education there, local observers say.

UPR is the number one choice for most high-school graduates, not only because of its world-class engineering program but for its rock-bottom tuition. With a college credit at $30, a one-year, 36-credit program costs about $1,345 in tuition and fees. That pales in comparison with the $3,489 annual average for in-state students at U.S. public universities. Even Politécnica's estimated $4,500 in annual tuition and fees is less than one-third of the $17,197 average for private universities in the U.S.

The lower cost does not come at the expense of quality, observers say. Seventh largest in the U.S., UPR's engineering school is considered to be among the nation's 10 best. Not only do three-fourths of its professors have Ph.D.s, but the 170-credit program takes five years to complete, one more than at most stateside universities. A well-rounded education that includes courses in humanities and social sciences and exposes students to a basic knowledge of other engineering fields is often cited as one of the school's salient points, says Nieves.

Corporate Support

Reinforcing the curriculum are cooperative education agreements with several companies and government agencies.

"UPR's engineering school is without a doubt one of the best schools nationwide," says Nelly González, Andersen Consulting's diversity director for North America. "It has an intense and rigorous curriculum that focuses both on the technical and people skills."

González says she came down reluctantly three years ago after meeting Nieves at a stateside conference. She was immediately surprised with the quantity and quality of graduating students and their willingness to relocate stateside. Since then, the world's largest management and technology consulting firm has hired more than 80 UPR graduates, the majority of whom are engineers.

"The experience has been excellent," says González.

UPR draws the best of the best of the island's high-school graduates, many of whom have taken advanced placement courses. For the current academic year, only half of the 1,774 applicants were admitted. To gain admission into the popular electric and computer engineering programs, for instance, students must have a GPA of at least 3.5 and high admission test scores, says Jorge Rivera Santos, acting dean of the University of Puerto Rico's School of Engineering.

Prep Courses Required

It's easier to get a foothold in Politécnica's School of Engineering, which this academic year admitted 1,200 of the 1,600 applicants. Still, weaker academic performers must take up to 24 credits of remedial courses before they dip into the engineering programs, which, like UPR's, are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Stateside recruiters have taken notice and are increasingly scouting local talent at both UPR and Politécnica.

"It's true most of these companies come thinking of their minority quota, but in the end they continue coming for the quality of our students," says UPR's Nieves.

Ken Acosta, cooperative education recruitment coordinator of the National Security Agency, agrees.

"Puerto Rico has the best caliber students when it comes to engineering," says Acosta. "They have good GPAs in addition to being responsible, hard workers."

The NSA, the U.S. Defense Department unit that handles signal intelligence, recruits between 10 and 20 local students annually. Given the quality of candidates, they easily could exceed those figures, but the agency aims at diversified recruiting. Acosta says the agency gets good Hispanic candidates from the mainland as well but concedes the pool is not as large as Puerto Rico's.

There is also a fierce competition for the few Hispanic engineers graduating from stateside universities, so Puerto Rico is an excellent alternative, added Andersen's González.

Drain, or Growth Opportunity?

Local politicians and economists decry the brain drain, especially of students trained at the publicly funded UPR, which sees more than half of its graduates leave for stateside jobs. But the truth is that the local market cannot absorb them all.

"The local job market is tight, and they are offered very competitive salaries," says Rivera Santos.

Most of the corporate recruiters offer pay in the $40,000-plus range. The best a starting engineer can do locally is the $38,000 paid by major multinational companies located in Puerto Rico, but these offers are the exception rather than the rule, says Nieves.

"Some of our graduates that take up stateside jobs beat right away the $40,000 annual salary average for our Ph.D. professors," quips Rivera Santos.

There is an added bonus in recruiting locally. Puerto Rico is also a bounty of hard-to-find female engineers, who made up only 19.4 percent of all first-year, U.S. engineering enrollments in 1994, according to Engineering Workforce Commission reports. Female engineering students account for 35 percent of UPR's student body, a figure that also puzzles UPR administrators.

"In Puerto Rico, we have access not only to talented Hispanics and technology but also to female engineers," says González. "We feel we have found a pot of gold."


© Copyright 2004 by Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology

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