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The dearth of engineers
AS I follow Emily Lim, a petite civil engineer with the Land Transport Authority (LTA), through the worksite of the Thomson-East Coast MRT line at Marine Terrace, I marvel at how easily she zigzags through the crowded work site, undeterred by the muddy puddles or scorching heat, greeting the site workers and stopping every so often so I can catch up.
Ms Lim is a deputy project manager of tunnelling, an expertise she had not expected to acquire, given her childhood dream of becoming an environmental engineer because she wanted to save the earth. After studying civil and environmental engineering in polytechnic, she decided to specialise in the former in university because it offered relatively more career opportunities.
When she first started out as an LTA project engineer six years ago, she was seconded to Downtown Line 2, Contract C915 - the tunnels between the Beauty World and Hillview stations. After C915, she says, she was assigned to the Thomson-East Coast Line Stage One, which is also a tunnelling project. This time, she was able to get more hands-on experience by procuring the tunnel boring machine, and being involved in the pre-tunnelling activities as well as the day-to-day tunnel production.
Statistics from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) show that as at June 2017, the ratio of males to females among science and engineering professionals is about three to one. Ms Lim says there are indeed more men than women in her field, but she does not find it intimidating, and she learns from those more senior and experienced than her.
She also disagrees with the oft-held opinion that there is a lack of career progression in engineering. After a certain level, one can follow a management track to become a project manager, or a technical track to become a senior engineer, she says. Meanwhile, the different projects that she undertakes allow her to keep learning and deepening her skills.
"And when you know that the tunnel you've completed is able to serve a lot of people travelling using the MRT system, it feels like you have done something awesome. It is something you can show to your friends and family, that this is the stretch you built, from here to there."
Yet, Ms Lim is one of only about half her cohort of engineering graduates from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who embarked on a career in engineering after graduation. NTU produces around 2,600 engineering graduates each year. Going by the graduate employment data in the last three years, just about half of its engineering graduates became engineers. The rest went into the various service sectors such as information and communication, finance and insurance, public administration and defence.
The percentage figures from the National University of Singapore (NUS) are higher. Of the 1,500 students admitted into the engineering faculty each year, about 70 per cent eventually go on to an engineering-related job.
To be sure, the technical skills and competencies acquired in engineering school can broadly be transferred to other professions. But perhaps these courses may not be attracting students who had engineering as their top choice, to begin with.
Says Ng Ker Wei, deputy director of the CET Academy at Ngee Ann Polytechnic: "In other words, you do not get as many students as in the past who are genuinely passionate about engineering and engineering careers. While many engineering students may develop the academic flair and competencies to navigate and complete their courses, they do not move into an engineering profession subsequently... The question that needs to be addressed is not why non-engineering professions are deemed to be more attractive, but what makes the engineering profession unattractive."
According to the latest MOM figures, as at September 2017, civil engineers, industrial and production engineers, and mechanical engineers ranked among occupations with the most job vacancies in the "professionals" category.
Surveys also found that the most commonly cited reasons why civil engineer vacancies go unfilled included a lack of work experience among applicants; unconducive working environment; or unattractive pay.
It is little wonder then that the government has been trying to attract engineers back to the profession. Two years ago, it announced higher salaries and a more structured career path for engineers in the public sector, including a leadership programme to groom engineers to take on positions such as chief engineers, chief technologists and chief scientists in ministries and public agencies. It is also trying to woo back home some of the nation's top engineers who are working abroad.
Rosemary Yeo, director of the Engineering Programme Office, Public Service Division, Prime Minister's Office, says technology is transforming the way public and private sectors operate - not just in Singapore but worldwide - and leading to a global talent shortage of programmers, coders, cybersecurity and user experience specialists.
"To address this scarcity, Singapore is building up our talent pool, especially in training, recruiting and developing Singaporeans in the various engineering domains," she says.
The shortage is also filled partly by hiring foreign engineers. Ms Yeo says: "Singapore recognises that our local workforce supply alone cannot fully meet the manpower demands for a globally competitive workforce, and continues to strategically welcome talent that can help create more good opportunities for Singaporeans."
The MOM does not have numbers for the ratio of local to foreign engineers in the market. But companies The Business Times spoke to say the foreign engineers they hire come mainly from China, India and the Philippines, but also from European countries and even Russia.
In urging the Institution of Engineers at its Golden Jubilee gala dinner in 2016 to make the profession "cool" again, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded guests that Singapore "was built on the backs of engineers". The profession was responsible for erecting the nation's basic infrastructure - from public health, housing, to the transportation networks and industries.
Addressing students at the Singapore University of Technology and Design in April this year, Mr Lee also exhorted them (many of whom are in engineering fields) to "follow your passion, don't follow the money" - apt advice as remuneration is one of the common reasons why engineers jump ship to other sectors.
Lian Sze Wei, a first vice-president of risk management at a local bank, is one among many who pursued a career in the financial sector after graduating with first-class honours in electrical and electronic engineering. But he says this was because a severe downturn in the engineering sector in his graduation year - 2005 - made him think twice about the long-term prospects of being an engineer.
He joined the bank as a risk manager, acquired a master's degree in finance, and worked his way up the ranks over the years. He found, to his surprise, that much of the skills he acquired in engineering school could also be applied to his banking job. Engineers typically have strong mathematical and technical skills, which make them comfortable with working with systems and sophisticated financial models, he says. Even better if they have good IT skills, which would also help them in data analytics and programming.
Mr Lian says one problem engineering graduates face is that their job prospects are rather tied to the ebbs and flows of different sectors. For example, Singapore used to make most of the world's hard disks in the 1990s to early-2000s. However, as the manufacturing of hard disks shifted to other low-cost locations, big hard disk manufacturers such as Seagate started to lay off staff, leaving many engineers out of jobs.
"In the past, the Singapore economy was driven by manufacturing and construction. That meant a demand for mechanical and civil engineers; subsequently this switched to electronics. Now, software engineering, especially in data analytics and artificial intelligence, is all the rage, but I'm also not sure if this is a long-term trend or a fad and whether the jobs will stay in Singapore," says Mr Lian.
"Those on a pure technical track are most at risk when companies undergo cost reduction. This is especially so for the older and more highly-paid workers. Other countries may treasure specialised technical skills more, but Singapore is always on the prowl for faster, cheaper labour. Engineering is always a function of what the country needs in the future, which for now could be services, finance, and data analytics."
But Mr Ng from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, who spent three years as a technical services engineer in the aerospace industry, says the engineering sector is not unique in its vulnerability to technological disruption, citing the banking and media professions as examples of industries that are also under tremendous pressure because of digital disruption.
"While the core technical skills that underpin each of these professions have largely remained the same, users' expectations and technology interventions have driven rapid changes in business requirements, especially at the application layers," says Mr Ng.
"This means that banking and media professionals have to adapt and constantly upskill and reskill, and at a faster pace or face skills obsolescence. The same could be applied to the engineering sector. The challenges are similar and engineers are subject to the same market forces as well."
There are other reasons that draw engineering graduates away from the profession besides higher salaries elsewhere, says Linda Teo, country manager of staffing firm ManpowerGroup Singapore. One is the image of the profession - commonly seen as unglamorous and more tedious, compared to the finance and IT industries.
Another deterrent may be the fact that engineers' work forms only a part of a bigger project which becomes obvious only when the entire project is completed. This stands in contrast to financial services and sales roles, for instance, where achievements can be tabulated, and the rewards are more immediate.
Generally there is perhaps a sense of underappreciation. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean put it at the Public Service Engineering Conference in 2016: "Quite a lot of the good work done by engineers happens out of sight. Often, nobody reports what you do because when somebody takes notice of what you do, that means something has gone wrong. When everything goes right, nobody bothers about it."
The advantage of size
It's also the multinationals and bigger companies that are better placed to hire quality engineers.
Yeo Choon Chong, Singapore CEO of Surbana Jurong Consultants, says the company has invested heavily in IT and digitalisation, moving into technologies such as building information modelling (BIM). Surbana Jurong has about 14,500 employees, including 3,000 in Singapore. Close to 1,000 of the staff here are engineers, a fifth of whom are foreigners.
The group is able to attract talent because of the prospects it offers of working on major infrastructure projects locally and abroad, Mr Yeo believes. Surbana Jurong has clinched engineering contracts for the Tuas Terminal Phase 1 & 2 Development and part of LTA Cross Regional Line contracts. It also partnered Arup and Mott MacDonald to win the contract for the Changi Airport Terminal 5 project. "These are big infrastructure projects that some engineers may see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on. Some people are prepared to come in to enrich their CV by working on these projects."
There is also scope in Surbana Jurong for lateral movements among different specialities, for instance, from coastal engineering to super high-rise buildings, for employees who might seek a change after some years. Research and financial positions are also open to engineers within the company.
It's a somewhat different story at DenseLight Semiconductors, a local SME that designs solutions for the semiconductor photonics market and employs about 90 people. President and general manager Rajan Rajgopal says the company is hard pressed to find local engineers with photonics-related qualifications or experience.
"If your field is small to begin with, as the years of experience go up, that pool becomes smaller," he says. DenseLight has therefore had to hire foreign engineers. "We try to find the best person available for the job and if he happens to be local, that's great. If he's foreign, then obviously we have to think twice."
He suggests creating an engineering jobs portal for smaller firms that operate in highly specialised areas such as photonics and artificial intelligence. "This specialised job portal would ensure a strong pipeline of local engineers supporting local companies. They will have the opportunity to work in cutting-edge technology and enjoy the faster learning rate that SMEs provide. Not doing this would mean a higher cost for SMEs as foreign talent is relatively more expensive."
Inequality among disciplines
Some engineering disciplines have greater appeal than others, it seems. Professor Chua Kee Chaing, dean of NUS engineering, says he has seen more applications for computer engineering programmes in recent years, possibly due to the global shift towards digitalisation and Singapore's Smart Nation drive.
But keeping engineering graduates in the profession today requires more than just a generous salary; engineering companies need also to continually reinvent jobs, he says. For instance, companies need to encourage engineers to build on their design-thinking and problem-solving skills, and move away from repetitive skill-based tasks that could be automated. This will promote innovation and personal growth for engineers, he says.
Over at NTU, the university's new programme in data science and artificial intelligence was one of the courses most in demand this year. NTU also raised its intake for computer science and engineering and ICT-related courses to over 500 places, in line with the high industry demand for such graduates.
Professor Louis Phee, dean of the College of Engineering, says: "In the last two years, fresh graduates from NTU's business and computing science double degree programme commanded some of the highest starting salaries, with a median starting salary of S$5,000, up from S$4,600 in 2016." This compares to the median starting pay of mechanical and civil engineers of about S$3,450 and S$3,400, respectively.
He points out that the technical skills and competencies that engineering graduates possess are also applicable in non-engineering professions.
"In recent years, the demand for engineers or quantitative analysts in the financial sector, for example, has notably increased. This is because engineers are equipped with math and problem-solving skills that are very valuable in areas such as risk management and algorithmic trading. Besides investment banks and hedge funds, insurance companies also hire experienced engineers who can assess the risks in specialised industries."
Singapore's Smart Nation thrust has also spurred a resurgence in public and private sector demand for engineers in the traditional areas of chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical, as well as emerging fields, such as additive manufacturing, microelectronics, advanced robotics, and computer and software engineering.
What remains to be done
The next few years will see demand for engineers grow as Singapore launches more infrastructure projects such as the North-South Corridor, an expressway that will feature continuous bus lanes and cycling trunk routes, and the 24-kilometre Jurong Regional Line which will add 24 stations to the existing rail network.
Says Surbana Jurong's Mr Yeo: "We can't produce more engineers overnight. It takes three to four years to graduate from school. I think it's inevitable that we may have to rely on foreign engineers to supplement that demand to cope with this workload.
"But I think the important point is that we should also have a system of allowing knowledge transfer, meaning our young engineers or new graduates will work alongside experienced foreign engineers and learn from them. Hopefully in three to four years' time when they leave the country, our engineers will be trained and able to take on the responsibility."
Ms Yeo says the Singapore public service will continue to recruit and develop engineers, including revamping salary schemes, developing career roadmaps and competency frameworks. The Public Service Commission also launched its engineering scholarship last year to encourage bright and passionate students to read engineering and pursue engineering careers in the public service.
"Comparing to 2016, there are more engineers entering the public sector today, with the highest growth in the infrastructure development and Smart Nation areas," she says.
Websites like engineerwhatsnext.sg also seek to challenge the outdated portrayal of the male-dominated engineering world by showcasing the careers of young engineers in different disciplines.
LTA's Ms Lim also recommends introducing flexi-working schemes - not just to attract more women into the field, but simply for anyone who might wish to further their studies on the side.
The pressure is on for Singapore to rebuild its engineering core. After years in the shadows, this unsung hero may yet be celebrated again.