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May 20, 2008

Looking For a Few Good Engineers

Michael Feldman

If you thought the US had problems finding qualified engineers, look at what’s happening in other countries. According to a recent New York Times article, younger Japanese are opting out of science and technology careers and, like their American counterparts, are choosing more lucrative or personally satisfying fields, like finance, marketing or medicine. The article cites a ministry of internal affairs estimate that the industry is already short almost half a million engineers.

Universities call it “rikei banare,” or “flight from science.” The decline is growing so drastic that industry has begun advertising campaigns intended to make engineering look sexy and cool, and companies are slowly starting to import foreign workers, or sending jobs to where the engineers are, in Vietnam and India.

But unlike in the more open form of capitalism practiced in the US, the Japanese have not yet fully embraced the idea of outsourcing or importing foreign talent. To make matters worse, Japan is sitting on a demographic time bomb. Falling birth rates means the country is trying to entice more young people into technology careers, even as the population dwindles.

The Brits are dealing with a similar conundrum. A recent article from The Independent describes an engineering “crisis” that is threatening UK technology competitiveness. Richard Lambert, the director general of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry ), said that UK companies are struggling to recruit enough engineers to meet local business demands.

“About three-quarters of our engineering companies expect a shortfall in recruitment this year,” Mr Lambert said. “More companies are having to recruit internationally to fill the gaps but other countries have exactly the same problems and sometimes the quality is not what we are looking for.”

The origin of the shortfall follows the US-Japan pattern: the number of engineering grads is failing to keep up with business demand. And many who get degrees may not follow a technology career path. The Independent article points to one observer who claims that as many as 60 percent of electrical or electronic engineering graduates forego industry jobs and enter other fields. Presumably these fields are more rewarding — either monetarily or personally.

The trend seems clear. Engineers, like many of the products they develop, are themselves becoming global commodities. While local demand for talent grows, market forces work to normalize labor costs — at least as long as countries like China and India keep pumping technology workers into the system. Meanwhile, current and future generations in the most advanced industrialized nations will tend to move up the food chain to escape the social and economic ramifications of a commoditized career path. Policymakers may fret over national technology competitiveness, but, like the people who obsessed about the loss of the manufacturing base in the latter half of the 20th century, they may be fighting the wrong battle.