Shrinking pool of engineers poses national risk

Engineers working in the train tunnel. PHOTO: SBS TRANSIT

Another train breakdown on Tuesday, another round of commuter outrage.

Could it have been prevented?

What caused power across the entire North-South and East-West lines to trip and shut down Singapore's most heavily used MRT corridor?

The answer can come only from engineers studying the problem and working out the solutions.

Alas, they have not been able to do so and an outside expert is now being sought. This isn't surprising by itself because railway engineering is a highly specialised field requiring deep knowledge and experience, but it also shows how important it is for the operators and regulator to develop their own internal capability.

Building and running an MRT system safely, smoothly and efficiently is first and foremost an engineering issue, and that is why SMRT and SBS Transit have to be first-class engineering companies with a corporate mission that puts that at the top of their priorities.

It starts with having top-notch engineers. For Singapore, though, that might be the hard bit.

It's getting harder because there is a shortage of these people and a reluctance among students to study engineering in university.

It wasn't like this 20 years ago and earlier. When I was in school and deciding what to do in 1971,

I picked mechanical engineering because that was the course for which the Government then offered the most overseas scholarships. My parents couldn't afford to send me abroad and so I accepted the award, as did many of my schoolmates. It was a period when engineers were needed to support Singapore's industrialisation drive, and the top students mainly chose to study the subject. An entire generation was schooled to believe the country needed these skills and it responded in numbers.

Today, both the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University struggle to fill their classes and have to admit foreign students to make up the shortfall. The best now prefer to do medicine, law, finance and business.

And even when they choose engineering, many of the top students end up in banking and other jobs which offer higher salaries. As a result, four of the top 10 professions with the biggest number of vacancies today are engineering-related, according to Ministry of Manpower data.

The situation is so bad that many public-sector agencies and government-linked companies have started to make changes to the career development of their engineering staff, to make it more attractive for new recruits and existing staff.

The Business Times reported last month that "a dearth of engineers, coupled with growing demand for them from the considerable number of government infrastructure projects initiated in the last two years, has triggered this flurry of moves to court them".

The bumper crop who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s have retired or are fast approaching the tail-end of their careers.

They carry with them long years of institutional memory and experience which cannot be replaced quickly unless there is a steady supply of fresh recruits along the way.

The problem was aggravated when some of these agencies outsourced the technical work or hived off parts of the organisation to do commercial work in the days when privatisation was the buzz word. Thus the Public Works Department, where many started their engineering careers, was corporatised in 1999, and renamed CPG Corporation. It was subsequently sold to an Australian, and later still, a Chinese company.

It happened too to the building and development arm of the Housing Board which became Surbana, a part of which was later acquired by CapitaLand China.

This hollowing out of experienced technical staff in the public sector, and the general shortage of engineers nationwide, is a problem with consequences that might only be beginning to surface. There is now a serious shortage of engineers in the power generation industry.

It is not a problem that can be solved overnight because it takes time to train a good engineer.

What can be done to attract more into the profession?

Pay is only part of the solution, though some people believe the Government did no favours when it first released data on the salaries of the top earners in six professions - business, law, medicine, accountancy, banking and engineering - in an exercise to benchmark the salaries of ministers.

The numbers showed that the top-earning engineers trailed a long way behind those in the other professions.

The other problem is the perception that it is hard work, unglamorous and with limited scope to move up.

Singapore, after all, isn't known as an engineering powerhouse, in the same way, for example, that it is recognised as a global financial centre. More should be done to highlight the fact that as the city develops into a First World metropolis, the engineering projects that follow will be no less rewarding.

When I asked the dean of the engineering faculty at NUS, Professor Chua Kee Chaing, to name some, he had many ready answers. Top on his list: offshore and marine engineering in which Singapore is a global player, producing 70 per cent of the world's new oil rigs.

Indeed NUS and Keppel Corp are now developing a cutting-edge research facility to help keep the country ahead of the competition.

Another area with exciting engineering possibilities: developing new solutions to the city's needs in waste management, water supply and security and transport.

But to carry out these projects, the country needs more home-grown engineers.

You might think that it can always buy expertise and equipment from abroad. But as the MRT breakdowns show, you can buy the trains and other hardware but you have to develop your own internal capabilities to maintain them well and troubleshoot problems when things go awry.

And you have to start nurturing the talent early on.

By the time the trains start breaking down, it is much too late.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline Shrinking pool of engineers poses national risk. Subscribe