on September 12th, 2006

It is a well recognized truism that science, engineering and technology are critical to economic growth for a country. So it is vital that we see a continuing flow of good engineers and technicians into industry. In 2001, the British Government commissioned an important study into "the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills". The report's findings highlighted a significant fall in the number of students taking physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering degrees in Britain.

Ian Young (vice-chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology) indicates that Australia has a similar problem. A total of 7.9 per cent of all graduates from Australian universities are in engineering, ranking Australia 24th out of 28 OECD countries. Contrast this with countries such as Korea at 27 per cent, Germany at 19 per cent and even Britain at 10 per cent. Comparatively, Australia produces few engineers and the number is declining. This will definitely pose a problem for economic development. Arguably the shortages of good technicians and tradespersonnel are even more acute than that for engineers.

The question on everyone’s lips is why students aren’t going into engineering either as engineers or technicians. It doesn’t appear to be because of money. Careers Council of Australia data shows that in 2003, starting salaries for engineers ranked fourth out of 23 disciplines, behind only dentistry, optometry and medicine, and the physical sciences ranked sixth. Ian Young goes onto say that his experience is that engineering and the physical sciences are perceived by students as being "hard". Good mathematical skills are almost essential for an understanding of science, technology and engineering. He believes the real nub of the problem lies in the early years of secondary school when students develop negative views about mathematics. Finding and retaining gifted and highly motivated mathematics teachers is an international problem. What we need are inspirational mathematics and science teachers of the caliber of Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

MIT President Susan Hockfield noted that we need to address the "challenge of interest." "Kids and Americans today fail to be inspired by engineering, by science, and by mathematics," she said, noting that only 17 percent of U.S. Bachelors' degrees are in science and engineering compared to 68 percent in Singapore. She also stressed that to move engineering forward we must "recruit aggressively" women and minorities in this country. "Engineering can't continue to be dominated predominantly by men -- by white men." Rather controversially, but perhaps courageously, Arden Bement (head of the National Science Foundation) stated that if U.S. Industry can find engineering talent in the developing world for 20 cents on the dollar, "they're going to do so, and probably should."

A few action steps are suggested:

  • The challenge for us in the western world is to "provide students who offer five times the value added to compete with the lower wage countries"
  • We need to inspire our kids at school to go for science and engineering type careers with stimulating courses
  • We need a Carl Sagan-quality spokesman to inspire students to become engineers and technicians
  • John Marburger (Science advisor to President Bush) also noted that the 98 percent of the students who drop out of engineering cite bad teaching as the cause. We need outstanding training and instructors.

Ensuring the supply of highly skilled engineers and technicians in our countries should be the highest priority if we want to continue to see a prosperous nation in the future.

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