Where have all the engineers gone?

Have we gotten to a point where our employers and the government don’t even bother recruiting local engineers and immediately recruit from overseas? Will this not create vicious cycle whereby bright Singaporean students avoid studying engineering in university because they know that once they graduate they will have to compete with an onslaught of cheaper foreign engineers? Can we really build up and sustain a knowledge based economy without a core of local scientists and engineers driving it?

A reader forwarded me this press release from Contact Singapore, announcing that Economic Development Board and the Ministry of Manpower are hiring 250 China engineers this Saturday in Shanghai. Here’s the catch: If don’t read Chinese, too bad for you–the press release is written only in Chinese with no English translation. It is quite obvious that the ad is targeted only at China engineers, and not at Singaporeans.

My reader wondered why priority was not given to Singaporeans. I think it is a valid question to ask. Can EDB and MOM confirm that no effort was spared in recruiting locally before going to China to recruit?

Having said that, it is likely that in this case, the companies have had difficulty finding local electrical engineers with those specialised skills (RF IC Design Engineers, Digital Design Engineers). I understand that many more Singaporean students nowadays are choosing not to study engineering in favour of business and finance. (I’m partially guilty–I studied electrical and computer engineering but went straight into IT consulting after graduating, never putting into practice all that digital and circuit design I studied.)

I feel this situation warrants deeper study. Have we gotten to a point where our employers and the government don’t even bother recruiting local engineers and immediately recruit from overseas? Will this not create a vicious cycle whereby bright Singaporean students avoid studying engineering in university because they know that once they graduate they will have to compete with an onslaught of cheaper foreign engineers? Can we really build up and sustain a knowledge based economy without a core of local scientists and engineers driving it?

I do not think importing engineers is the long term solution. It is an easy way out for our government and companies. But when these engineers get better positions in the US or back in China, they will up an leave in a jiffy.

We need to make engineering an attractive career option again, just like it was in my time in school. It is an uphill battle, because careers in the financial industry are almost always going to pay better than what engineers get. Our students must be persuaded to take up engineering if they have a passion for science and technology. It’s not just about money. On the part of the Government, this aggressive recruitment of foreigners has to be tempered, to force companies to look locally before venturing abroad for talent.

12 thoughts on “Where have all the engineers gone?”

  1. “We need to make engineering an attractive career option again, just like it was in my time in school.”

    Who’s “we”? Business? Society? The Govt? If the latter, why is it the govt’s job to make any particular career (whether engineering, nursing, IT, etc) attractive?

    Singaporeans always complain about the nanny state. Yet when they see something they don’t like, they always call for “the authorities”, “society”, “the garmen” etc to do something about it.

    I don’t think it’s the Govt’s job to make one career option more attractive than another at all. When you do that, we get the Philip Yeo approach. One year he’ll be promoting careers in the disk drive industry with scholarships and funding, while next year he’s promoting life sciences. All to support his KPI’s at EDB, to go with the PAP master plan for Singapore.

    Are we Singaporeans just pawns to be used for the PAP’s master plan?

    Let’s put it this way: do you see the US govt promoting careers in software or life sciences, and try to steer the undergrads studies in their desired direction? Or does the US govt focus on making a level playing field for employment, and leave people to decide what they want to study and where the should work?

    Be careful what you wish for. If you want a less oppressive govt, it means necessarily a less directive govt, and that people have to make their own decisions and not look to the govt for support.

    If engineering is not an attractive career option, so be it. It’s a problem for companies to solve, for the engineering industry to solve. The govt should not get involved. And people should not ask the govt to get involved.

  2. “Have we gotten to a point where our employers and the government don’t even bother recruiting local engineers and immediately recruit from overseas?”

    I doubt it. Do you know how much trouble it is to recruit from overseas? The lead time. The cost. The cultural and language issues.

    Any employer will prefer a qualified local who can start immed vs a foreign engineer with potential language and cultural issues who can start only 6 months later. Unless the recruitment is to work in their china plant.

    “Will this not create a vicious cycle whereby bright Singaporean students avoid studying engineering in university because they know that once they graduate they will have to compete with an onslaught of cheaper foreign engineers?”

    This is a xenophobic and politically loaded assertion.

    First, it doesn’t just apply to engineering, it applies to practically any field now.

    Second, it logically follows from the above that students have two choices: study harder and become better than the FT’s, or quit. Quitting means even less career opportunities, so it’s likely the students will choose to study harder, whether to work in Singapore or to go to US to work.

    “Can we really build up and sustain a knowledge based economy without a core of local scientists and engineers driving it?”

    Again, who’s “we”? More importantly, what does the the citizenship of scientists and engineers have to do with a knowledge-based economy’s sustainability? You know for instance that Silicon Valley is filled with Indian software engineers, and employers kept lobbying for more H1-B visas for them, esp during the dot com boom.

    Doesn’t this show that a KBE like Silicon Valley can easily build and sustain itself even with FT’s?

    Ditto, if you go to New York, you’ll see loads of Japanese, Hispanics, Italian-Americans, Chinese, Blacks, etc. And Spanish is almost as important as English there now. Yet New York’s KBE has not collapsed because of FT’s.

    So why should Singapore’s KBE fail just because we don’t have enough local scientists and engineers?

  3. There was a time when people said
    That Singapore won’t make it, but we did
    There was a time when troubles seemed too much
    For us to take, but we did
    We built a nation, strong and free, reaching out together
    For peace and harmony

    Chorus 1:
    This is my country, this is my flag
    This is my future, this is my life
    This is my family, these are my friends
    We are Singapore, Singaporeans

    Singapore our homeland, it’s here that we belong
    All of us united, one people marching on
    We’ve come so far together, our common destiny
    Singapore forever, a nation strong and free

    We the citizens of Singapore
    Pledge ourselves as one united people
    Regardless of race, language or religion
    To build a democratic society
    Based on justice and equality
    So as to achieve happiness
    Prosperity and progress for our nation

    We are Singapore, we are Singapore
    We will stand together, hear the lion roar
    We are Singapore, we are Singapore
    We’re a nation strong and free forevermore

    We are Singapore, Singaporeans ( X 2 )

    **********************

    We have come so far together, only to see opportunities given to foreigners at the expense of Singaporeans.

  4. There was a time when people said our bus fares won’t increase
    But it did
    There was a time when people thought our CPF won’t decrease
    But it did
    We built a nation,
    With nothing free,
    Reaching out together,
    To grab all our mo-ney

    Chorus 1:
    This is my country, this is my flat
    Is there a future, or am I mad?
    What of my family, what of my friends?
    We are chin kang kor, chin kang kor eh lang

    Singapore, our homeland
    Is ruled by one party
    They’ve just stuck us with some more
    Bloody GST
    We worked so hard together,
    What have we achieved?
    Singapore forever,
    Stuck with price increase

    (Repeat Chorus 1)

    (Sung)
    We, the citizens of Singapore
    Pledge ourselves as one diffi-cult people
    Regardless of haze, weather or pollution
    To complain about it equally
    Whether statement, law or policy
    Because we have much
    Unhappiness
    That we cannot
    Express through elections

    Chorus 2:
    We are chin kang kor, we are chin kang kor
    We will stand together and complain some more
    We are chin kang kor, we are chin kang kor
    We will kau peh kau bu, then kau peh some more

    (Repeat Chorus 1 & 2)

    We are chin kang kor, chin kang kor eh lang (x2)

    This alternative version is better to suit our current situation.

  5. It’s not a matter of directives from the govt that we want here. It’s a matter of undoing the directives from them. I believe that if you, Gerald, stayed on in the US upon graduation, there’s a much greater likelihood of you pursuing a career in electrical/computer engineering. When I visited America, people there who learned of my engineering degree were like all whistles and bells about how bright my career was going to be, and there I was getting all confused because back home in Singapore, engineering is a dirty hell road of a career.

    Why are engineers in USA enjoying such a high quality of life whereas the ones I know of in Singapore are looking for weekend tuition to supplement their income?

  6. What I find personally insulting is the trotting out of “language and culture issues” as reasons not to be afraid of valuable professions (like engineering in this case) being increasingly closed to locals; the idea that the US has a “level playing field” is one I can testify against from personal direct experience. Both Singapore and the US are going down the same road: realizing that their educational systems have been devastated for political reasons while at the same time under increasing pressure from corporations threatening to remove themselves (and their money) from the US/Singapore unless unlimited skilled-labor importation is allowed. It’s been essentially impossible for a qualified American to walk in off the street and get a job at an American company doing software since at least 1999. Companies there don’t usually even bother to pretend that they’ll entertain American résumés; they just wait for the next planeload of “engineers” to come in. (If you know someone inside the company beforehand, of course, you’ve got a chance, especially if your friend is in non-technical executive management.)

    I’ve been in Singapore for the last several years and seen pretty much the same story. You have to be Chinese to get hired, “because we do or might do business with China.” So the only language and culture that’s wanted is Chinese…. so why not recruit in China where you’ve a larger pool of candidates who aren’t going to start clamoring for pesky things like “rights” and a “living wage” when it’s not convenient? And why on earth would these companies — or their partner and best friend, the Leegime — throw money away by advertising in English when those high-level folks who actually ARE Singaporean are quite proud of not having to use English regularly?

    I remember what this place was like 30 years ago, the first time I saw Singapore…. a (Chinese, ironically) friend of mine who’s been here since then calls Singapore “chalk and Friday different” than what it was then, but has a wife and kids here who have thoroughly bought into being “Singaporean.” The comparison I tend to make is more like the funhouse mirrors… after someone comes through throwing a sledgehammer around.

    If Singaporeans want to have anything resembling a middle class in 30 years’ time, then people need to start agitating, from now and continuously, to strengthen local education and the surrounding cultural institutions that determine whether it succeeds or fails. People have been trained since young not to think about “political” things like that, but to leave it to the “highly qualified experts” among the cronies in Government. That attitude is looking increasingly akin to an ostrich with head in the sand, and a large pack of very hungry hyenas fast approaching.

    What will people do?

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