Engineering a revival of interest

Singaporean students seeking higher education are little different from their counterparts in most industrial nations who see their future in health care, financial services and new technologies. Before financial instruments earned banking a reputation as a mint among careers, engineering used to be a staple too. Then came a period when interest in science, technology, engineering and maths waned. Now, academic vogue seems to be swinging again as more bright A-level students are choosing engineering.

If renewed interest in such courses at Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore grows, the more balanced allocation of tertiary talent would be a welcome development. Economies with a strong focus on science and technology allied with an apprenticeship system, like Germany, are more consistently stable through disruptive business cycles. Singapore should aim to strengthen that stabiliser in its edifice, parallel with its promotion of financial services, which are more susceptible to job shedding in a downturn.

Parents shepherding their children's future are not saying it out loud, but relativities in career mortality may be behind the new appeal. Jobs in ever-expanding fields of engineering and technology management hold better in recessionary times.

In terms of gains to the economy of having ample engineering expertise, these have been demonstrated in mature economies with a mix of manufacturing and services. Being versatile and natural problem solvers, many engineers turn their hand to start-ups and management. Chief executives of Fortune 500 companies hold first degrees in engineering more than in any other field. In a different milieu entirely, those of like background are prominent in China's political class.

NTU and NUS are to be commended for continually designing their courses to spark students' interest. Select programmes within the engineering faculties permit inter-disciplinary studies (combining business, as an example) or a second major. They also provide associate arrangements for immersion or postgraduate studies in places like the University of California, Berkeley and Cambridge.

Internships abroad are a big part of the training. The innovativeness has done wonders in upgrading the geeky image of the profession. To young people making career choices, it could be the clincher.

Hence, more attachments made available here for engineering students would be welcome. If the NTU-NUS annual output grows much bigger than the thousand-odd at present, will industrial attachments as a culture develop naturally? These have been piecemeal so far despite government prodding.