A Global Challenge: Training Engineers for the 21st Century

Experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM fields – help grow economies. Yet interest in these fields is down in the US and Europe. “Within industrialized countries, scientific and technical courses are deemed to be difficult, uninteresting and not competitive in terms of salary expectations,” reports ParisTech Review. An introduction to the essay points out that entrepreneurs are proposing to meet US needs and avoid visa regulations that “a floating city be developed in international waters, off the Californian coast, capable of accommodating 2000 engineers from all round the world.” Engineering innovations can take up to two decades to achieve and require creativity and patience. The article points out that the cultural tendencies of engineers can vary depending on where they are trained. Nations increasingly compete to produce “super engineers” adept at project management, negotiations, creative problem solving, sustainability, self-discipline and ethics while overseeing teams of diverse experts that can “share their scientific knowledge and know-how.” – YaleGlobal

A Global Challenge: Training Engineers for the 21st Century

As nations compete to produce super engineers adept at management of diverse teams, negotiations, sustainability – the US produces more quality than quantity
Friday, November 22, 2013

In Sub-Sahara Africa, reported Unesco in 2010, some 2.5M new engineers and technicians would be needed by 2015 to meet the millennium development objective goals (MDO) for access to drinking water and quality of public hygiene. In contradistinction, in Asia, countries like China, India and South Korea are publishing triumphant statistics on progress of their graduate outputs, as are certain countries in Central Europe, like Poland. Some second zone emerging countries, among which Mexico and Turkey, are also beginning to fill the gap. But on a global scale the world is experiencing a shortfall of scientists and, especially, engineers.

The building spirit under threat

The reasons behind this decline are well known. Within industrialized countries, scientific and technical courses are deemed to be difficult, uninteresting and not competitive in terms of salary expectations. Teenagers are just less and less interested, and among the ones who engage into these courses and get a diploma too many switch to another career.

The European Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) survey regularly reviews the interest and motivation of 15 year-olds for scientific and technical professions. For many years now in developed countries, there has been a progressive lack of interest of the younger generation for these jobs. It is a major challenge for European economies, and was already identified as such by the European Commission more than 10 years ago when it was working on the Lisbon Strategy. The Strategy specifies that it is the responsibility of states to implement training and development policies related to scientific professions, well before individuals even begin their studies.

The EU is far to be the only victim of this lack of interest for technical professions. The USA are being hit hard because of a general dislike-distrust for science and they are beginning to fear serious effects on their competitivity in three major areas: biomedical R&D, energy procurement/management and new technologies (ICTs). The efforts the USA are now deploying can serve a signal for all the other highly industrialised countries. The situation reads: the offer of graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stands at 10.1 M, practically in phase with the projected demand from the American domestic economy (10.4 M), but these figures are largely over-optimistic because of the clear propensity of a large proportion of the graduates (43%) to choose employment in other sectors, i.e., outside STEM. The real picture is that, if nothing changes in the employment market, there will soon be a shortfall of approximately 400 000 STEM engineers. This situation is considered sufficiently serious in the USA for the country’s Administration and major strategic advisory cabinets to mobilise and indeed join forces to meet the threat. President Obama’s White House team, via the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness has invested between 3 and 5 billion dollars a year, since 2008, to turn out an extra 10 000 engineers every year.

McKinsey & Company were chosen to concoct the recovery plan. According to the consulting firm, all that is needed is to see the STEM course offer and teaching back on a par with similar countries. In doing so, the country would in fact make an economic profit of 25 billion US$, the rise in GDP resulting from several factors: lower unemployment in job sectors that still pay a decent wage, but also gains in productivity related to more grey matter being applied in the economy‘s strategic sectors. The objective is to see the percentage of American graduates finishing a 2 to 4 year STEM higher education at the same level as the average of the OECD countries. This means moving up from the current 15% (in China the figure is 42 %!) to 23%. To reach this figure, two feats have to be accomplished: 1° to get the number of students going for STEM courses to rise from 14 to 24% – practically doubling up! – and, 2° to stop the epidemic trend of students’ dropping out (53% of matriculated students abandon their courses).

It is equally important that more women choose STEM careers. Several recent studies show that an engineer’s job is often seen by women as appealing in terms of ‘control function’ motivations (power, recognition, mastery, success) while women would rather see themselves in more community-serving jobs. In France, the engineering country par excellence, the proportion of female engineers stopped increasing 10 years ago (cf. ParisTechReview: Why aren’t there more women engineers?).

The question arises, is this portended shortfall real, documented, proven? Faced with the McKinsey statistics, some voices of dissent have been heard, that tend to relativize the crisis. According to Vivek Wadhwa, research scientist at Harvard Law School, this talk about engineering shortfall in the USA is exaggerated. As he sees it, if there were a real shortage, then we would observe automatic salary rises and the latter can only be observed in a limited number of highly specialised areas such as software engineering or oil industry engineering. Vivek Wadhwa, who hails from India, adds that we are witnessing an American inferiority complex that is not justified given the level of uncertainty in Asian statistics and some highly contrasted performance figures and ratings.

It is true, nonetheless, that South Korea has come to grips with the problem and has accomplished considerable progress in its capacity to orient its best young people to science and technology intensives studies (1 in 4 compared with 1 in 20 for the USA!). Its ministries in charge of Education and Science & Technology have been merged and they have also set up the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), an establishment credited with inventing the ideal engineer for the 21st Century: a real specialist with a broad-based general engineering background, including training in managerial functions.

In the emerging countries, the hidden face of the crisis

If, reading the official figures, China turns out over 1M engineering graduates/yr. (and India in the region of 500,000), the skills of these graduates are not yet comparable, on average, with their Western hemisphere counterparts (or with the Japanese or Korean STEM graduates). Given obvious disparities, it is Vivek Wadwha’s opinion that for an equivalent (and demanding) set of criteria, the USA turns out more qualified engineers than India or China for that matter.

Looking closer at the example of India, we can observe that the national success stories in several high-flying fields such as computer science or biomedical engineering, tend to mask weaknesses in the educational system as a whole (primary, secondary and higher education). According to the findings of a study published by the Duke Pratt School of Engineering, 50% of India’s graduate engineers are unemployable and the highly remarkable Indian Institutes of Technology only turn out 5 000 engineers annually.

The Chinese easily award the title of engineers, even for garage technicians. In mandarin Chinese, gōng chéng shī is the only translation at present for our Western word engineers. It designates a technician and even a ‘surface technician’, viz., a floor cleaner! You can become a gōng chéng shī, without a diploma, or indeed any particular form of training. The risks of misunderstandings are therefore more than real … the Chinese academics have now added “excellence engineers” to denote the difference. In order to assure their training, China is doubling up its efforts and is now a major consumer of assistance and co-operation with foreign engineering schools, notably the French grandes écoles d’ingénieurs.

China suffers from a supply problem numerically speaking. The country has a very high number of engineering graduates, but paradoxically the number of young Chinese professional engineers capable of working in compliance with international standards is far lower. The Chinese education system favours theoretical training and hence most of the graduates join their first professional posting with very little practical experience, especially in the area of product management, team work, language and organisational skills.

We can deduce that the Western world and Asia are facing symmetrical, complementary concerns. American, German and French management observe that China trains more engineers and scientists than they do. But the Asians have come to realise that their students do not as yet possess independent minds or convictions, nor the creativity needed in the long term to assure innovation and growth of their national GDPs. Their primary worries are that specialisation would narrow down the professional vision of the engineers and that ‘learning by rote’ may dry-rot their imagination.

The Chinese authorities are totally aware of the shortfalls of their national engineer/scientist education programmes: in quality control, for example, the level of attention required constitutes a chronic area of weakness. The undisputed technological achievements, in building programmes and maintenance, there have been some notable misdemeanours in terms of the most elementary safety regulations. High speed trains, e.g., the Beijing-Tianjin train or the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train that runs between downtown Shanghai and Pudong International Airport, suffered consequently.

China wants to develop large-scale industrial programmes, in particular they would like to design and build a Chinese airliner for the second half of this decade. In order to achieve this aim, China has huge needs in terms of qualified, specialist engineers who can act as technicians, managers and as ‘visionaries.’ Training Chinese “excellence engineers” has become a major national priority for the decade 2010-2020.

Defining and developing a composite alloy for an aircraft or an engine can take up to 20 years. This, in engineering language, is the “long phase” that cannot really be shortened, during which time the science base is augmented and enhanced and experimentation used to validate progress. The engineers in charge must also be adept of the extremely complex science of project management, which calls for an ability to synthesise work in progress and requires engineers with transverse, cross-the-board, minds capable of ensuring that experts for various domains share their scientific knowledge and know-how. What can be described as scientific depth is an intrinsic feature that cannot be invented nor purchased. At this sort of level of industrial complexity, engineers cannot just be high level technicians or operators. They must be true architects, ‘frontiersmen’ capable of assuring the junction between the technologies and differing cultures. Thus, a solid scientific and technological culture must go hand-in-hand with management and negotiation skills. These will be tomorrow’s ‘super engineers.’

At this point, let us take note of the differences between two major models, notably when it comes to comparing German and French engineers. German engineers are university graduates, and they have developed a more technological approach, against a mainly technical and scientific horizon; the French engineer develops more managerial and organisation skills and framed in terms of career paths that often rapidly take the graduates away from the more technical aspects of their job, as they become increasingly involved in management functions. Each model has its advantages, but they should be seen as complimentary. The larger emerging countries, often capable of training excellent specialists today, seem to lack in general course engineers, i.e., along the lines of French engineers, capable of managing the specialists reporting to them and also possessing the capacity to master domains outside their original scientific specialty.

Engineers for the 21st Century

Beyond quarrelling about to the numbers of graduates from the Universities, HE institutes and engineering schools in the industrialised or the emerging countries, the real debate is about the very functions of engineers today. In a modern knowledge-based economy, it is not the mastery of a given piece of knowledge that counts most, but the capacity to assimilate new data and to solve real problems as they arise. A report from Yale College in … 1828, distinguished between “furniture” and “discipline”: “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge”. Acquiring the furniture (mastery of the knowledge content of given specialties, become a relative value in a world that today is evolving so rapidly. Those engineers who wish to become leaders in their fields mostly need “discipline of the mind.”

Engineers of the 20th century needed full mastery of computer sciences and mathematics; their mission consisted of implementing rationality into industrial organisations. Engineers for the 21st century cannot limit themselves to modelling or optimising. They will be designers and innovation drivers. They must be capable of taking into account the systemic challenges such as sustainability. In short, they must be able to take a broad view – hence the importance of assimilating a minimum of management art, along with social sciences and environment sciences.

A third skill must also be added: to be capable of proposing new concepts by integrating a form of artistic reasoning – something totally new for an engineer – more sophisticated and of wider scope than traditional, formatted reasoning. This implies that tomorrow’s engineers must integrate aesthetic awareness. This announces a metamorphosis of technical jobs – with the arrival of ‘right-brained’ engineers, corresponding to an inevitable strong growth of design parameters in every stage, from design, assembly and manufacturing to marketing of goods and services. The 21st Century engineer will become an architect, an expert in anthropology, a sociologist. In a world that is now beginning to experience the end of cheap energy, the new engineer will have to develop a new form of personal ethics, given that henceforward his profession will be addressing questions that necessarily cover the perquisites for sustainable territorial planning.


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