Thursday 12 February 2015

Where have all the engineers gone?

Urgent need to attract talent to sector seen as 'dirty and boring'
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2015

WHEN Mr Marcus Chew decided to become an electrical and electronics engineer in 2002, it sounded like an interesting career choice.

But after graduation and four years into his job at a semiconductor firm, the profession was fast losing its shine.

"The pay went up by around $50 a year, no matter how hard you worked. It was very demoralising," said the 33-year-old, who also found designing speaker circuits for radios a far cry from what he had signed up for.

"My idea of engineering was like Iron Man but it wasn't like that," he added with a laugh, referring to the comic superhero created by a fictional engineer.

Like about half of his fellow engineers, Mr Chew left the field, and is now a civil servant looking at quality assurance for training.

Engineering, long the backbone of Singapore's economy, has been losing its lustre in the eyes of the young for over a decade. Many covet jobs in banking and finance instead.

So, despite initiatives over the years, including school contests and workshops, firms are increasingly hard-pressed when it comes to finding engineers.

Last year, for the third year running, engineering jobs took the lion's share of professional occupations with the most vacancies. Five - including civil and mechanical engineering - are among the top 10 jobs on the list, according to the latest Manpower Ministry statistics for 2014.

Besides poorer pay prospects, people also think engineering jobs involve getting one's hands dirty and are boring, partly because engineers are not recognised for their work.

"Steve Jobs is famous, but not the engineers behind the iPad," noted Nanyang Polytechnic engineering lecturer Edwin Foo.

Curbs on Employment Pass renewals are also leaving open more positions formerly filled by foreigners, said Institute of Engineers, Singapore (IES) honorary fellow and government adviser Lui Pao Chuen.

The result is a talent crunch. Instead of getting experienced engineers, companies like LongTech Engineering have to train new hires from scratch.

Operations director Boyd Sheum said: "If they stay only two or three years, then your effort goes down the drain. That's the painful part."

Industries such as manufacturing and construction will suffer if the shortage of skilled staff continues, experts have warned.

To stem the bleeding, companies and industry groups are trying to show students that engineering is cool and interesting.

For example, robotics classes can spur their interest, said Dr Foo. "As our population ages, we may need more robots and automation, so this is a field that will be important and exciting."

The Singapore Contractors Association offers six-month industry attachments, and IES is raising funds for 50 undergraduate scholarships it hopes to give out next year.

Once graduates are hooked, keeping them is the next goal.

So, a leadership programme for young engineers was launched by IES and the National Trades Union Congress last year, with two more programmes for managers and chief technology officers planned.

Also, there is room for salaries to rise, said IES president Chong Kee Sen. "Employers have to relook the pay scale of mid-level engineers, and look at career progression for them so they see future prospects," he said.

He estimates that an engineer with at least five years of experience earns between $5,000 and $7,000 a month.

The Government can play its part too, by employing engineers to lead ministries or agencies which rely on such skills, suggested MP Lee Bee Wah, a civil engineer. "Then it will show engineers that they can reach the top in their careers," she said.

Employ stop-gap move as local talent beefs up

I ECHO the concerns over hiring abilities raised by the president of the Singapore Institute of Architects, Mr Theodore Chan ("Architecture profession facing same problem"; Jan 29).

These same concerns plague the consultant engineering industry. Engineering consultancy espouses an innovative blend of art and science to tackle contemporary challenges, such as efficiency in built environments.

Thus, it is especially essential, given Singapore's land-scarce situation.

Yet, similar to architecture, amid the forecast population and built development growth, we too suffer a dearth of engineers and technicians within the local pool of Singaporeans and permanent residents.

This deficient supply has not been made easier by the stricter hiring quotas on foreign engineering technicians.

Admittedly, efforts have been made to ameliorate this situation.

The foreign hiring restrictions were enacted alongside expanding efforts to boost local productivity - do more with less.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has been one of many at the forefront of this call.

Nevertheless, although improvements to productivity should continue, a minimal level of human resource remains a necessity and cannot be entirely disposed of yet.

Questions of varying levels of productivity, growth and expansion end, at some level, on whether we can hire more.

On this note, the Ministry of Education has, in an effort to boost local skilled supply, rightly initiated programmes like the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE), which enhances the ability of Institute of Technical Education and polytechnic engineering students to better progress into the industry.

However, even with such restructuring and training, it will take some time before these graduates can fill productive roles within the industry at large.

Till then, as a stop-gap measure, it might be reasonable to revise the hiring quotas on foreign engineering technicians.

This would grant the industry much-needed relief as we await a recalibration of local supply.

When so many within the broader industry have raised the same concern, it can only show the presence of a real, wide and structural problem besetting these sectors.

The current situation is not improving. It requires urgent attention.

Ling Shiang Yun
Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore
ST Forum, 10 Feb 2015

Readjust nuts and bolts of engineering profession

THE experience of Mr Marcus Chew in yesterday's article ("Where have all the engineers gone?") is not unique and is one that we often hear.

It is the story of a person drawn to the engineering profession because of an interest in building cool stuff; finding that Singapore has no such companies that offer that kind of R&D; compromising by working in an industry outside of defence that still requires engineers; going through the heartache as that industry declines due to global forces; moving to another engineering job but finding that the scope is too narrow; then finally, disillusioned with the engineering industry, choosing a profession that is outside of engineering.

While comparatively lower pay and prestige are often trotted out in explaining the dearth of engineers in the industry, the reality is much more complex. 

Singapore does not have R&D powerhouses in consumer products such as the likes of Samsung and Sony.

The bulk of real R&D resides within either defence-related industries or universities and university-linked research labs.

These industries have different objectives which may not speak to the interest of young engineers. 

At the same time, certain companies choose to hire engineering degree holders, when a diploma-trained engineer might be more suitable, in the belief that the job will be done better.

This leads to frustration from both parties as the degree holder has to learn to do a job for which he is not trained, and the company believes that an engineering education does not adequately equip the engineer to do the job. 

Furthermore, because of the scope of the job, the company will have a limited budget for salaries, leading to small pay increments for the engineer. 

I have a few suggestions to boost the profession:
- Create a government-funded institution that focuses on commercialising patents developed by the universities where teams of engineers look at development and manufacturing challenges.
Successes can then be spun off as companies.
- The curriculum for engineering should be revised so that those who wish to can work towards a professional engineer's (PE) certification on top of theirbasic degree, instead of spending a further year on an honours degree.
As PEs require work experience, students can be placed out sooner to work with companies, while gaining a valuable professional certification.

Tong Hsien-Hui
Engineering Alumni Singapore
ST Forum, 11 Feb 2015

Efforts to boost engineering profession

WE ARE heartened by the interest generated in the discussions on the engineering profession.

Engineers play a significant role in nation building and the development of engineering capabilities is essential for Singapore's continued success.

The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES) is working with various stakeholders in the private and public sectors and academia to support the formation and growth of our young engineers, and offer clear and varied pathways

to support them in their career progression - for example, by developing pathways for them to be accredited either as professional engineers or chartered engineers.

As many engineers often end up in leadership positions, IES and NTUC have also introduced the Young Engineers Leadership Programme to nurture young engineers into our future global leaders.

With these measures and others in the pipeline, employers will be better placed to develop and nurture their engineers. That will help them retain the best of their engineering talent to do what they are trained for, solving tomorrow's problems today.

We are also actively working to appeal to our younger generation. IES organises the National Engineers Day annually to engage students in exciting challenges, such as this year's energy challenge, where participants will develop basic hands-on engineering skills by applying fundamental science to develop solutions.

IES is also dedicating part of the biennial World Engineers Summit on Climate Change to educate students on how engineering will be used to ensure urban resilience and adaptation to climate change.

To honour the role of engineers in nation building, IES is celebrating SG50 with a series of 50 public talks and roadshows to showcase the work of engineers in enhancing the quality of life of Singaporeans over the last 50 years.

IES is also launching the 50 Years Of Engineering book, which will share with the community what engineers have been doing behind the scenes. We will also be asking the public to vote on the top 50 engineering feats in Singapore that have made a significant positive impact in their lives.

Engineers make an impact in our daily lives. With the various initiatives, we hope the roles and contributions of engineers are made clearer to the community and that the engineering profession will be one that our youth endeavour to join.

Chong Kee Sen
The Institution of Engineers, Singapore
ST Forum, 17 Feb 2015

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