With the National University of Singapore reportedly churning out 1,500 engineers every single year, what is happening to them?
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the shortage of engineers in early July 2016 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Institution of Engineers Singapore.
The public service plans to hire 1,000 more engineers this year, but he said the country faces a major challenge in building up engineering talent and keeping up with changes in its practice.
Based on whatever has been discussed about this issue so far, very broadly, we can summarise it into nine factors, slotted under four categories: Nature of job, Society, Individual and Market Forces.
Ultimately, all nine factors intersect to create a larger problem that has been looming over the horizon: Why aren't engineers remaining as engineers in Singapore?
Nature of job
1. There is no lack of good engineers in Singapore, just a lack of challenging jobs or jobs that compensate good engineers.
Singapore is not an engineering hub -- yet -- which explains why companies such as Google and Facebook have not set up development centres here.
2. In Singapore, an engineer's work is more like maintenance: Long hours, with salaries rarely exceeding twice the starting pay even after years of experience.
It is ill-suited for engineers who are innovators.
3. Government scholars with an advanced engineer degree don't even do engineering work. They become managers performing long-term planning roles and are not placed in development-focused engineering roles.
4. Asian society has always been more hierarchical. This has resulted in engineering vocations not being seen as on par with project managers or IT supervisors -- which are considered a step up.
This also hampers the innovator's streak that constantly questions and pushes boundaries. See point 5.
5. Singaporeans are generally risk averse, unable to move out of their comfort zone and lack ambition. This makes them more suited to "entry level engineering" than "innovative work".
Which explains point 1.
6. Engineers in Singapore are not paid enough. An experienced engineer from Singapore could get a higher salary even in China.
7. Singapore has become a financial, research and medical hub and these are the sectors with prestige and money, and that’s what people chase -- especially engineers.
8. In Singapore, top engineers go into finance or become public servants. When engineers become managers, their salaries can triple.
Engineers in local engineering jobs will work towards getting MBAs and become managers.
9. Engineers are perceived as commodities, whose skills sets can be substituted with foreigner engineers.
Once treated as commodities that are exchangeable, there is a lack of appreciation for good engineering skills and achieving lower cost is what matters.
Which explains point 1. Again.
A version of this article first appeared here
Top photo via here