Singapore must guard against a dearth of engineering talent
With the dawn of Industry 4.0 and changing attitudes towards careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields and recent developments, we need to take a harder look at how Singapore can continue to produce talents in these areas to sustain the nation’s growth.
Engineering and home-grown technological innovations have propelled Singapore’s spectacular rise from a third-world nation to a first-world one over the last 50 years.
But with the dawn of Industry 4.0 and changing attitudes towards careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields and recent developments, we need to take a harder look at how Singapore can continue to produce talents in these areas to sustain the nation’s growth.
A recent survey of 1,000 adult Singaporeans by American multinational firm 3M found that only between 9 and 18 per cent of them are keen to embark on careers in Stem, as opposed to 30 per cent who prefer to do business.
According to the Education Statistics Digest published by the Ministry of Education, the number of graduates in engineering science modestly increased from 4,283 to 4,475 from 2016 to 2017. More than 25 per cent of total graduates come from engineering sciences.
Yet four of the top 10 professions with the largest number of vacancies today are engineering-related.
According to the Manpower Group’s 2018 talent shortage survey, 56 per cent of employers in Singapore reported difficulties in recruiting, especially in the engineering and IT sectors, which incidentally are two of the top 10 most difficult sectors to fill.
Perhaps one of the key reasons is that the soft skills of those in IT and engineering, such as problem-solving and critical thinking, are extremely sought after by other industries.
Given the option of more flexible working arrangements, attractive pay and career prospects in emerging sectors, many end up opting for jobs outside the engineering industry.
Why is this a serious concern for Singapore and what can it do?
Speaking at the launch of Science Centre Singapore’s Future Makers exhibition on June 18, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean highlighted the importance of engineering when he said how it “has played a major role in Singapore’s growth and transformation and will remain important as the country enters the next phase of development.”
A week later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that a key ingredient for Singapore’s Smart Nation push to use technology to improve the lives of Singaporeans is strong engineering capabilities.
Why is this so?
Consider for example how the Internet of Things is used to produce more efficient urban systems in the water, transportation and energy sectors.
Smart city infrastructure such as smart lamp posts are already detecting footfall and vehicular flow as well as levels of fine particles in the air to inform city planners on the effectiveness of their policies and enable real-time responses to emergencies.
Likewise, smart electrical grids are programmed to detect usage patterns and intelligently direct excess power supply to areas with high demand.
Such smart nation solutions will not be possible without engineers and Singapore could pay a heavy price if a lack of interest in engineering or Stem careers among its younger generation leads to a dearth of engineering talent here.
So what can be done? For a start, educators here have to do a better job of creating awareness about the importance of engineering and inspire our digitally-native generation to be bold problem solvers through hands-on learning and early exposure to Stem.
To drive this transition, educational institutions and the industry have to break the cycle of thinking that a career in Stem is unexciting. Many young people still feel that Stem majors and careers are only for nerdy scientists in lab coats or studious geeks who excel in science and mathematics.
Our institutes of higher learning and companies should get the word out that engineering is a mindset that thrives on curiosity that shapes and changes lives. And that there are many exciting challenges waiting for our young Singaporean engineers and scientists to push boundaries and contribute to a more exciting Singapore.
Both the industry and the Government can do more to raise awareness through career fairs, scholarships, national campaigns and increasingly innovative internships, programmes and training schemes.
Educational institutions and companies should actively showcase examples of graduates and employees who have done well in engineering careers that made a difference to society.
This can be an environmental engineer like Jasmine Foo, who planned the environmental monitoring and management works for large-scale dredging and reclamation construction projects such as the Pulau Semakau Landfill when she was at DHI Water and Environment.
Or Dr Bernard Leong, a theoretical physicist whose passion in Stem began back in his secondary school days participating in the Science Centre’s Questa card programme for students to engage in project-based investigations of their own preference.
He has held leadership roles in various technology and digital services businesses and was most recently the Head of Airbus Aerial Asia, where he led the company’s strategy and drone delivery programme in the United States and China.
Such stories on how they have improved lives will be very powerful in inspiring our younger generation to take up engineering or Stem careers.
To be sure, some educational institutions here have adopted new teaching techniques and modules to make engineering a more interesting course for students. Classrooms are adopting interactive methods that encourage students to learn via collaboration and application.
At NUS Engineering, tertiary students are acquiring new skills in the areas of robotics, machine learning and design thinking. Students can opt to specialise in Internet of Things, robotics or digitalisation in urban infrastructure and data engineering.
At the Science Centre, we give students a taste of effective collaboration in Stem through competitions, hands-on workshops on 3-D modelling and product design where like-minded students can fuel each other’s growth and thinking.
Our newest “The Future Makers” exhibition celebrates engineers and engineering. Guests can step into the shoes of an engineer and experience hands-on as they explore day-to-day innovations to complex engineering marvels. The aim is to help guests develop a passion for Stem careers from a young age.
Engineering today does not just serve a functional role. It is a powerful engine boosting our economy and more importantly, a vehicle that has the power to create and transform lives.
As Singapore continues to develop rapidly as a smart city, we need to overcome a multitude of challenges by pushing the envelope in innovation — and we can do so by nurturing future engineers with the power and passion to create.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng is Chief Executive of Science Centre Singapore.