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Shortage of engineers may weaken manufacturing capabilities

Singapore's universities produce some 4,000 engineering graduates every year, but industry observers said a growing number are choosing non-engineering careers. Some experts said not having a ready pool of engineering expertise could have considerable consequences for Singapore.

SINGAPORE: Singapore's universities produce some 4,000 engineering graduates every year, but industry observers said a growing number are choosing non-engineering careers.

Some experts said not having a ready pool of engineering expertise could have considerable consequences for Singapore, especially as its economy continues to rely on manufacturing and innovation.

Philip Leow, managing director at Fong Shen Mould and Precision Engineering, said: "In Singapore’s precision engineering industry, we're not getting many people to come in to join this industry, and we foresee that the youngsters are not willing to come in. We think that automation will help us to maximise our productions and with minimum (labour)."

In an industry always hungry for fresh ideas and better solutions, Mr Leow said he is having trouble hiring engineering graduates.

But statistics from Singapore's universities show no lack of engineering graduates every year.

At National University of Singapore, the number has grown more than four times between 1995 and 2013. Engineering graduates used to form less than 10 per cent of the graduating cohort, but it is now about a quarter.

At Nanyang Technological University, its engineering faculty boasts the largest number of graduates each year. Over the last two decades, the number almost doubled to 2,800 last year.

But out of the 4,000 who graduate each year, a growing number are not becoming engineers.

One of them is Jason Lim, who is now in business development, despite studying mechanical engineering.

Mr Lim said: "In the finance industry, you need to do a lot of mathematics, so being engineering-trained, I have that slight advantage over my peers. If you talk about mathematical situations, and also in this instance, if you talk about problem solving, engineering students tend to be much more - I would say they're trained to be problem solvers, to improve situations, to improve processes."

Mr Lim said there are others like him - many of whom are drawn to finance and the higher salaries.

Surveys from 2013 show that most engineering graduates get a basic starting salary of about S$3,000. This is a few hundred dollars less than business graduates, and up to S$2,000 less than law and medicine graduates.

With lower starting salaries to offer, it is the smaller engineering firms which are struggling most to attract talent.

Many engineering firms in Singapore are small- and medium-sized and this further compounds the problem, as SMEs already have trouble attracting young Singaporeans in recent years.

Mr Lim said: "It is less glamorous because SMEs are still relatively unknown, so if you were to have a conversation with your friends, you're deemed to be slightly below par compared to those who're in the Fortune 100 companies or some of the MNCs. And in terms of salary package, perhaps some of the SMEs are not able to match the kind of salary package as compared to some of the MNCs."

Observers said SMEs can do more to do more to improve their image, as there is a perception that "only big companies can treat you well".

Zaqy Mohamad, member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said: “SMEs can actually sell themselves more, but it's also how we sometimes portray SMEs. I think we should also portray some of our successful leaders who are currently either bosses of SMEs or leaders or CEOs of their own startups and how they've been successful.”

Beyond SMEs, observers said the implications of not having enough engineers could be serious.

Professor Chou Siaw Kiang, president of Institution of Engineers, said: "It will definitely weaken our manufacturing, our design capability. It would be definitely more difficult for us to want to freely improve our infrastructure. It would be a huge question mark as to how we're going to be prepared for eventualities, be it climate change or be it security situations where our food supply and water, energy supplies become an issue."

Mr Zaqy said: "This trend also may not bode well for Singapore in the long term, especially when the economy also relies on innovation, manufacturing - we have a huge reliance on manufacturing, construction, and also some of the higher value-add technology fields."

To address this, the Institution of Engineers has launched an accreditation programme to give professional recognition to qualified engineers.

Currently, only civil, electrical and mechanical engineers can register for Professional Engineer status.

Prof Chou said: "At this present state, as our economy is further growing, diversifying, with possible new industries in aerospace, in marine, in areas of chemicals, energy and so on, there will be opportunities for us to grow very competent engineers to stand alongside those who're traditionally in the built environment, where they're already certified professionals.

“So these other engineers who're working in diverse industries or even systems engineering in the military and so on, with recognition, we believe it will help raise the profile of these engineers, and it will add glamour, hopefully, and showcase their achievements and contributions to the economy."

But there is another trend that some academics are worried about.

Even among students entering university, the popularity of engineering courses is slipping among top students.

While the most popular courses - law, medicine and business - require three 'A's to enter, most engineering courses are calling for a combination of 'B's and 'C's.

Professor Teoh Swee Hin, director of Renaissance Engineering Programme at Nanyang Technological University, said: "Our top scorers from 'A' Levels, polytechnics, for example, are not going into engineering, which is a very important backbone for manufacturing, for a lot of technology development and business in Singapore. Engineering is very broad-based. As a result of that, we realised that we need to do something because if we don't, then there'll be a big vacuum left in the next few years for Singapore.

“It is worrying because we know from history that innovations, technology in the country are heavily based on engineering. We need to bring back good engineers to the industry. We need to bring back the flavour that engineering is not a technical job."

NTU thus repackaged its engineering course, and launched a new programme called Renaissance Engineering (REP) in 2011.

The idea is to blend business principles and liberal arts with engineering. There is also a one-year overseas immersion programme.

Prof Teoh said: "I can tell you why the iPhone is so successful - because they have tremendous marketing. The tablet technology was in the science for more than 10 years. But no one was able to market like Steve Jobs. We put the business school with engineering so that we can help to nurture the innovators that have a marketing sense.”

First-year student Victoria Zhao said she is drawn to the unique curriculum at REP, even though she had wanted to study business at first.

She said: "I find pure engineering something which is extremely technical. I don't really see myself as a real practising engineer. It's not a career choice for me and it's not what I'm interested in. But REP is very different, it equips me with business and management skills, which can help me become the management of a company which might do engineering-related things."

The programme has so far seen success in drawing the best students - with 400 applicants vying for just 50 vacancies last year.

It is the only engineering course in Singapore that requires applicants to have three 'A's at the 'A' Levels.

But even if it seems promising in reviving interest in engineering, the university is cautious about expanding its intake.

Prof Teoh said: "We need to let REP the concept evolve. We don't want to be so gung-ho and over-produce. How REP will fit into the economy in Singapore needs to be studied carefully."

In recent years, the government has also been paying attention to the need to nurture engineers, and the number of engineering courses has grown exponentially in the last five years - with the establishing of Singapore's fourth and fifth universities - the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the Singapore Institute of Technology, each with its own take on how an engineering education should take shape.  

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