SINGAPORE - When Marcus Chew decided to become an electrical and electronics engineer in 2002, it sounded like an interesting career choice.
But after graduation and four years into his job at a semiconductor firm, the profession was fast losing its shine.
“The pay went up by around $50 a year, no matter how hard you worked. It was very demoralising,” said the 33-year-old, who also found designing speaker circuits for radios a far cry from what he had signed up for.
“My idea of engineering was like Iron Man, but it wasn’t like that,” he added with a laugh, referring to the comic superhero created by a fictional engineer.
Like about half of his fellow engineers, Mr Chew left the field, and is now a civil servant looking at quality assurance for training.
Engineering, long the backbone of Singapore’s economy, has been losing its lustre in the eyes of the young for over a decade. Many covet jobs in banking and finance instead.
So, despite initiatives over the years, including school contests and workshops, firms are increasingly hard-pressed when it comes to finding engineers.
Last year, for the third year running, engineering jobs took the lion’s share of professional occupations with the most vacancies.
Five – including civil and mechanical engineering – are among the top 10 jobs on the list, according to the latest Manpower Ministry statistics for last year.
Besides poorer pay prospects, people think engineering jobs involve getting one’s hands dirty and are boring, partly because engineers are not recognised for their work.
“Steve Jobs is famous, but not the engineers behind the iPad,” noted Nanyang Polytechnic engineering lecturer Edwin Foo.
Curbs on Employment Pass renewals are also leaving open more positions formerly filled by foreigners, said Institute of Engineers, Singapore (IES) honorary fellow and government adviser Lui Pao Chuen.
The result is a talent crunch. Instead of getting experienced engineers, companies like LongTech Engineering have to train new hires from scratch.
Operations director Boyd Sheum said: “If they stay only two or three years, then your effort goes down the drain. That’s the painful part.”
Industries such as manufacturing and construction will suffer if the shortage of skilled staff continues, experts have warned.
To stem the bleeding, companies and industry groups are trying to show students that engineering is cool and interesting.
For example, robotics classes can spur their interest, said Dr Foo. “As our population ages, we may need more robots and automation, so this is a field that will be important and exciting.”
The Singapore Contractors Association offers six-month industry attachments, and IES is raising funds for 50 undergraduate scholarships it hopes to give out next year.
Once graduates are hooked, keeping them is the next goal. A leadership programme for young engineers was launched by IES and the National Trades Union Congress last year, with two more programmes for managers and chief technology officers planned.
Also, there is room for salaries to rise, said IES president Chong Kee Sen. “Employers have to relook the pay scale of mid-level engineers, and look at career progression for them so they see future prospects,” he said.
He estimates that an engineer with at least five years of experience earns between $5,000 and $7,000 a month.