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
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
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
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
A recent Banco Popular survey of 140
major Puerto Rico-based employers shows a need for technical
professionals here, particularly computer, mechanical, and
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
Reinforcing the curriculum are
cooperative education agreements with several companies and
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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