Where are the engineers?

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Engineers in a factory

By Robin Low

Engineers in a factoryMany agree that before we can become a start-up hub, we must first become an engineering hub. Singapore must reach a stage where companies like Apple, Facebook and Google open development centres here instead of just sales offices. No tech startup can happen without the right people.

Even with the increasing number of craft events and HackerCamps happening in Singapore, many companies still claim there aren’t enough good engineers here. However, NUS produces about 1,500 engineers a year. This does not include computing graduates. If the education system produces the engineers, then where are they going?

Engineers in Singapore always like to say there is no future in engineering. I contacted several of my engineering classmates to find out why.

The top graduates went on to high-paying jobs in finance. Others became public servants. With limited job opportunities for engineers, this is not surprising.

Afterwards, those engineers who did find local engineering jobs, went on to advanced degrees. Most got MBAs, becoming managers and project managers. I do have several friends who got their MEng. However, they still opted for a more managerial position. On receiving PhDs, they then left industry to become academics.

My peers in the US however, fared differently. Of eight who joined Intel, all of them are still working there, even after getting their post-graduate degrees. They said they had challenging work in research and design, and were well paid. All were making 3 times more than their starting pay, and had flexibility working hours.

In Singapore, an engineer’s work is more like maintenance. Hours are long, even after years of service. Salary rarely exceeds twice their starting pay. However, when leaving engineering, their compensation can be on par with their counterparts in the various fields. When they become managers, their salaries are about 3 times their initial salary.

Sometimes it is not the company’s fault, as many average Singaporeans underperform in their knowledge role compared to their paper credentials. In particular, when compared to similarly-qualified engineers from other developed countries, the average Singaporean is: less willing to challenge convention or question authority; more afraid to take risks and move out of the comfort zone; and more likely to display a silo mentality with poor cross-collaboration skills.

Average Singaporeans can thus appear more concerned with guarding and nurturing their own turf rather than being adventurous and exploring other opportunities. In short, Singaporeans’ risk aversion and inability to move out of their comfort zones can translate into professional inflexibility and a lack of ambition—which, again, may seem better suited to “entry level engineering” than “innovative work”.

Singaporeans are academically brilliant and they have a high respect for authority. A similar team in the US would keep questioning and want to have a healthy dialogue every step of the way. This is good for “maintenance works” in engineering, hence the industries which “do not need innovation” thrive.

When the demand for project managers exceeds that of engineers, something isn’t quite right. When an engineer’s innovation is not considered as important as a manager’s, something is wrong. Technical skills are not being valued by the business community. The largest number of job vacancies in Singapore is in engineering, but the compensation is not sufficient to attract and retain the exceptional ones.

As there is a big demand for talented engineers overseas, an experienced engineer from Singapore could get a higher salary even in China. There is no reason why good engineers should stay in Singapore. Until the engineering industry and the business community can appreciate and reward good engineers fairly, there will always be a brain drain – either out of Singapore or to other industries.

There is no lack of good engineers in Singapore, just a lack of challenging jobs or jobs that compensate good engineers well enough for them to stay.

Robin Low is a young Singaporean living in Boston. He is the founder of a nanotechnology company in the US.