The results of this survey is a reflection of its international nature first. To a lesser degree it is also a reflection of the diverse backgrounds of the engineering schools these kids are coming from.
I am willing to bet that if you only survey the very best in the World, say those who are graduating in engineering from Caltech, MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley, the results will show a much larger preference for startup companies!
Air Force? Really!!!? I was an engineer for the Air Force for 15 years and I can say without a doubt that the Air Force has no clue how to employ, engage, manage or utilize engineering talent. Maybe the engineers surveyed were commenting about being a cleared defense contractor for the Air Force.
NASA is hardly in the cellar. The Manned Spaceflight is only a part of what NASA does. Fortunately engineers are not a sell-out to the media and realize many of the science/exploratory missions are really cool stuff. We only need to look at the MSL Mars Curiosity - someone even went a far as making a rap video - check it out on Youtube.
In fact, all large companies consist of many small companies. The trick is to apply for the group that does what you're passionate about.
And too, after a few years, if the grad is on the ball, he will pretty much mold his own job. That's what happens when one's talents become recognized, and when management is doing their job right.
Well, when I was a young engineering grad, I started out at a small company, but I was not satisfied. Why? Because it seemed obvious that the small size was also a big limitation. I suppose if the small company did precisely the kind of work the grad likes, perhaps it's a different matter.
Fortunately, I soon got an offer from one of the very top companies on your US list, and it's been super ever since.
I though what was most interesting is that US grads want to go to (what I consider to be) the really cool stuff, like space. I'm curious why that doesn't translate more to other grads. After all, the space program is multinational.
The sheep go to the large multinationals. The wolves go to startups. If you do insist on going to a multinational then at least ensure that you go to a small team developing new products otherwise you will learn to be a cog in the machine and learn little of value outside a large organisation.
The attractiveness of local companies does not surprise me. Several of my daughter's good friends are currently engineering students, and my observation is that they are very bright and not as naive as many assume. They understand that certain engineering jobs will never be outsourced and will always have citizenship requirements. Perhaps this is the reason we see defense contractors and even the US Air Force on the list for the US students.