Atlanta's Relative High Quality Engineering Talent Production

October 16, 2017

When visiting emerging tech companies as part of MAC's Backed By ATL initiative, a recurring observation by CEOs was that, while first-tier engineering talent is difficult to find anywhere, it is much easier to find here than in the Bay Area.

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When visiting emerging tech companies as part of MAC's Backed By ATL initiative, a recurring observation by CEOs was that, while first-tier engineering talent is difficult to find anywhere, it is much easier to find here than in the Bay Area. 

The basic explanation is that the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has a first-tier technically-oriented university, Georgia Tech, that is also extremely large, both in absolute size and as scaled against the total local engineering community.  That is, the advanced education of new technical leaders is proportionately far higher here. 

Truly measuring the production of top-tier engineering talent by leading universities requires more data than is available.  However, enrollment in graduate engineering programs in top-tier engineering programs seems like a reasonable proxy for our purposes for two reasons.  First, using graduate school enrollment as opposed to undergraduate enrollment seems like a better indicator of how the schools are producing top-tier engineering leadership talent as opposed to simply adding well-qualified engineers.  Including undergraduate programs may be misleading for our purposes.  Graduate enrollees have demonstrated an interest in diverting a portion of their lives to enhancing their engineering training.  By itself, this is a good screening device.  Second, admission to these programs is extremely competitive, hence enrollment in these programs is a very strong signal of potential excellence.

The importance of the ability of employers to interact with the graduate students while they are still in advanced training but have not yet graduated is hard to overstate.  A graduate engineer that does not finish the advanced degree program is still an engineer that has received advanced training.  This is very relevant for the local talent pool. The employer, unless an academic institution, is not necessarily as concerned with whether the engineer has earned a Ph.D.  He or she wants the engineering talent — the training that goes into the granting of that degree – and not necessarily the degree itself.  All but dissertation graduate students may not be adding to their relevant skill set by simply completing their dissertation.   Hiring students with the appropriate training and skills can occur prior to degree completion, but generally the screening necessary for the employer is hard to do remotely for students who are not in the formal job market. Companies searching for engineering talent leadership can interact with local graduate programs in ways that are only available to those in the immediate community.  Establishing relationships with both students and faculty can give those employers a major advantage in finding and recruiting top-tier new talent.

Top-tier engineering talent in the Atlanta MSA comes from Georgia Tech, ranked number seven in graduate engineering programs nationally, according to the U.S. News & World Report, Best Grad Schools, 2018.  

Evaluating talent production in the “Bay Area” is complicated because the region contains two MSAs, San Francisco and San Jose, each with its own Top 10 engineering graduate school, as judged by U.S. News & World Report 2018 rankings.  Stanford, in the San Jose MSA, is number two on the list and Berkeley, in the San Francisco MSA, is number three.

All three schools report enrollment in their graduate school of engineering.  That seems a reasonable proxy of the relative intensity of first-tier technical talent production at these three schools.  Certainly, there is STEM talent produced in other graduate programs at those schools.  There is also the possibility that undergraduate degrees awarded may be able to help.  Graduate enrollment is not necessarily the ideal metric, but in terms of engineering leadership talent, the advanced degree enrollment in engineering seems like the best indicator of the relative intensity of local talent production.  This cannot address issues of finding specific idiosyncratic skills, but it is reasonable to assume that it is easier to find those skills in a location with a larger pool of candidates.

There is no other school listed in any of the three MSAs that are ranked in the top 25.  Top 25 is an arbitrary number, and for our purposes of examining leadership-producing graduate engineering programs, it is probably too generous a number.

Stanford reported 3,675 students enrolled in their graduate engineering school in 2017.  Berkeley reported 2,076.  Georgia Tech reported 8,850.  By this metric alone, Georgia Tech educates 1.5 times more graduate engineering talent than Berkeley and Stanford combined. (!!!)

Now scale the size of the schools by the size of the local engineering job market attached to those schools.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational categories can capture local employment that might be engineering or tech related, in particular, the broad categories of “Computer and Math” (15-000) along with “Engineering and Architecture” (17-000).  Combining these categories overstates the number of formal engineers in the local economy, but does so in a harmless way for our purposes:  the mismeasurement is consistent across the local economies, so the distortion of the metric is the same in both cases.  The metric is simply a relative comparison; the number itself is only useful as measured against another MSA’s number.

Atlanta’s combined measure of engineering-related employment in the MSA is 155,600.  So, the ratio of high-quality engineers being trained locally (8,850 from Georgia Tech) compared to the local engineering employment base is 5.7%.  Again, this number is not representative of anything more than a proxy that scales talent production to the size of the local market.  While the number itself is not particularly meaningful, it is useful for making comparisons across metro areas.

The Bay Area is complicated because of its two MSAs, San Jose and San Francisco.  They will be looked at both separately and combined.  San Jose has Stanford (3,675) and combined engineering employment of 187,290.  This produces a ratio of 1.96%.  San Francisco has Berkeley (2,076) and 187,410 engineering-related jobs.  The ratio is 1.11%.  Combining the two California MSAs is probably appropriate for this exercise since they are physically close to each other and, combined, physically smaller than the Atlanta MSA.  Taken together, they have 5,751 engineering graduate students and an engineering job population of 374,700 for a combined ratio of 1.5%.

Atlanta is providing its local engineering employers new, high-quality engineers at a rate almost four times the rate at which the Bay Area is being supplied by its local top-shelf schools.  While micro-implications about the local job market cannot be drawn from this analysis, the intent of this work is to show that a major reason why tech firms report it easier to find quality talent here as opposed to the Bay Area is that Atlanta higher education dramatically outperforms Bay Area institutions in terms of the quantity of highly-skilled engineers educated at the graduate level.  More talent production in Atlanta makes for a better tech hiring environment. 

Adding the Boston market is a bit complicated.  The size of the job pool is 142,850.  MIT, as the #1 school, is the obvious comp:  it reports 3,124 graduate students in its engineering school.  Harvard, at #23, reports 478.  Using the generous top 25 ranking, and thus perhaps giving undue credit to Harvard engineering, it and MIT together report 3,602 students against an employment base of 142,850, for a ratio of 2.5% in Boston.  This is better than the Bay Area, but still less than half the coverage of the Atlanta area.

The Bottom Line:  Georgia Tech is both a really good and a really big producer of engineering talent.  By our proxy, Berkeley and Stanford combined produce less than 2/3 the talent pool intensity of Tech.  People in the Atlanta area are vaguely aware that Tech is an engineering powerhouse, and this note presents some evidence suggesting just how large that powerhouse is against the rest of the U.S. engineering school markets.