Thursday, July 24, 2008

ST: Expect high leakage of engineers

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Expect 'high leakage' of engineers

TRAIN more engineers and expect a 'high leakage' of these desirable talent into other industries, said Mr Philip Yeo.

It's inevitable because 'their skills of logical thinking and analysis can be applied to any field', he added.

Mr Yeo should know. An engineering graduate from the University of Toronto, he has held various public sector portfolios.

He was a Defence Ministry permanent secretary. He was also chairman and then co-chairman of the Economic Development Board from 1986 to 2006.

He was also chief of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and is now the Spring Singapore boss.

He argued that engineers can easily cross over into finance, but not the other way round.

But what's happening today is that bright A-level students are heading into finance, an industry where he felt young people are 'grossly overpaid'.

He warned that the 'penalty will be felt years down the line'.

In contrast, Germany values engineers.

'It comes from a tradition in which you value people who can make and sell things.'

The solution: Reward engineers well, and make the industry attractive.

For now, a PhD graduate in mathematics can earn much more at a hedge fund instead of as a researcher, he said.

Singapore trains about 4,400 engineers a year at the universities here, he noted.


Is the solution really to train more Singaporean engineers when more of them are crossing over to non-engineering sectors of the economy? When more people cross over, this means that the market doesn't really need so many engineers. Also, companies won't pay engineers more simply because someone says so, even if that someone is Philip Yeo.

The comparison with Germany is not really suitable. The kind of engineering jobs we have in Singapore are mainly the repetitive low-level technical types, those that can and will be outsourced to China. On the other hand, a good deal of those in Germany are those that involve tailoring the product for the customer. Those jobs in Germany require a great deal of technical proficiency whereas the ones in Singapore are mainly the Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V types.

Take for example, the field of electronics. Although Singapore has a large microelectronics industry, most of the equipment is imported from overseas. If a machine breaks, they'll just fly in someone from the US to fix it. Singapore doesn't make high-precision optics; countries like Japan and Germany do. Because most Singapore engineers don't make or design things like high-precision optics, they stand to lose their jobs in the next 5 years to some guy in Vietnam or China. On the other hand, German or Japanese engineers have a lot more job security because they perform precisely those kind of services.

Rather than increase the number of engineering graduates, I believe that better solution would be to cut the number of engineering graduates and instead, focus on improving the quality of the education and training engineers receive in Singapore. In Germany and many other European countries, engineers undergo a very rigorous technical training and their degree courses take 6 years. Competition to gain entry to engineering institutions is fierce and engineers are very well-paid. In Singapore, people with C's for A-level are dumped into the engineering schools of NTU in the mistaken belief that the more sub-par engineers we have, the better off we are.


Norman said...

From a scan of the job advertisements, most of the engineers here do maintenance & quality control at factories and wafer fabs. There are fewer positions for design.

Anonymous said...

I think engineering education in Singapore do not lack quality when compared to European countries. In fact, I find some of the courses quite practical.
The problem, I believe, lies in the lack of Singaporean engineering firms. It is well established that western countries outsource their manufacturing and not their design work. Therefore, the ability to design is not critical for Singaporean engineers. The refinement of engineering (design) courses will not be a valid reason to shift the design jobs into Singapore. It can at most help to create more technopreneurs (we tried that for years and it didnt quite work).

Solutions?... perhaps GIC can buy some engineering companies and shift some of their design work to Singapore...

Fox said...

Yes. There is a lack of Singaporean engineering firm and not much design work is done in Singapore. I suppose the same is true for R&D in Singapore . Even for Creative Technology, one of the few Singapore success stories, they base their R&D work in California and not in Singapore.

Anonymous said...

engineering is a good undergrad course but in spore when you come out of engineering course, the "engineering" jobs that await you are technician in nature or more of project management, nothing fanciful and just require general skills. if s'pore really wants to up the level of engineers then you will have to regulate this profession and make it more professional. perhaps the first step will be not to treat engineering as dumping ground.

Fox said...

The problem is that Singapore has always sold itself as a cheaper/more cost-effective place for manufacturing. So, design skills or deep technical knowledge have never been particularly in great need. It was perfectly alright to dump 'C' students into engineering. However, when 'C' students were dumped into engineering, employers and investors learnt that and adjusted their expectations of engineering graduates.

Agagooga said...

I believe in our universities the ratio of engineers to other degrees is much higher than elsewhere in the world.