Make engineering sexy again
Singapore focuses on pulling in the very best minds for a profession that may have lost its attraction among the young
Wanting to find solutions to the problems facing the world today, Mr Terence Tang decided to get a degree in mechanical engineering at the PSB Academy.
"Engineering has always been about solving problems," he told The New Paper.
"For every design, there is a purpose, and even the simplest thing needs engineering. Take the humble screw for instance. Someone needed to come up with the concept and design."
To prove the mettle of one of his ideas, Mr Tang, 27, worked with three schoolmates - mechanical engineering student Navendu Kumar Dubey and electrical engineering students Thamiris Lorena de Souza Alves and Shreeya Vasisht - to build a sustainable biomass and solar-powered stove that uses low-power electricity and even monitors cooking emissions using low-cost sensors.
A biomass cook Rstove, commonly used for cooking and heating food in developing countries, is heated by burning wood, charcoal, animal dung or crop residue.
Their effort won them the third prize at the National Engineers Day Energy Innovation Challenge 2016. Encouraged, Mr Tang said he will look towards improving his creation.
But not every young Singaporean views engineering as cool and sexy anymore, and the profession has not pulled in the very best talents over the last decade.
Out of the 51 President's Scholars between 2006 and this year, only two - Mr Hong Wenxian and Miss Clara Lim - picked engineering as their preferred choice of study at university.
Dean and senior vice-president of PSB Academy Joao Paulo Ponciano said one problem engineering may have with the young is that translating an engineering concept into reality takes time.
"It is not done overnight. For example, the A380 airbus was conceptualised in 1996 and launched in 2002," he said.
The problem with the young is that they are impatient when wanting results, he added.
While getting school-leavers to opt for an engineering degree is proving difficult, persuading them to stay on in the profession continues to be an uphill task.
While starting pay is generally competitive, figures have shown that an engineer's earnings lag behind other sectors such as medicine and law.
According to Adecco Singapore's 2015 wages guide, a mechanical engineer who first starts out gets paid a monthly salary of $3,500 to $4,500, while a new fund management analyst at a bank gets between $3,500 and $6,000 a month.
Five years on, the mechanical engineer's pay would have risen to between $5,000 and $8,000, while his counterpart in fund management gets between $6,000 and $10,000.
Similarly, the Manpower Ministry's wage report in that same year showed that a mechanical engineer starts out at $3,766 gross a month, while a financial risk analyst gets $5,670.
Among the top earners in each of these professions, the mechanical engineer earns $5,675 while his counterpart in finance gets $12,750, more than double his pay.
Many engineering graduates do not stay in the profession for long, citing pay as one reason and they move into other sectors, particularly finance.
Banks also prefer to hire engineering students to "strengthen their teams of financial specialists".
"Engineers have good mathematical skills, practical common sense and usually end up becoming better managers in the finance industry," Professor Ponciano said.
"Their skills are useful in data analysis for trading purposes and complex derivatives. Engineers are also used to working under pressure and that would make them suitable to adapt to the highly pressurised financial environment."
To prevent a brain drain from the profession, the Government announced in April that the starting salary for engineers joining the public service upon graduation will be $3,800 a month - an average increase of 20 per cent.
How engineers are paid compared with other professions
GENERAL PRACTITIONER (DOCTOR)
IN-HOUSE LEGAL COUNSEL (COMPANY LAWYER)
FINANCIAL INVESTMENT ADVISER
FINANCIAL RISK ANALYST
COMMODITIES DERIVATIVES BROKER
Source: Ministry of Manpower wage table 2015
On track to make engineering sexy again
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to make engineering more attractive as a career in Singapore.
He expressed this during his stop at Silicon Valley as part of a working visit to the United States in February.
Discussing this with Singaporeans at major tech giants such as Google and Facebook, many of whom are engineers, he encouraged them to return home one day and contribute to society and the economy.
But getting them to quit their jobs, uproot their families and give up what they have in Silicon Valley is a tall order, PM Lee pointed out.
After all, engineering is not as highly valued among many Singaporeans as it is in Silicon Valley.
Mr Lee noted then that Singaporeans tend to see the job as a support function.
But with Singapore on a quest to become a smart nation, the time is right to focus on the merits of engineering.
The Government, being the largest employer in Singapore, is leading the way by hiring about 1,000 engineers this year - expanding the current pool of 7,700 by more than 13 per cent.
It will also be paying a premium for engineers with skills that are in high demand and short supply.
These include malware analysts and those in cyber forensics, or those with niche skills that are specific and critical to the Government.