Governments, Industry and Universities Respond to Global Shortage of Engineers

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As global economies struggle to regain their financial footing following years of economic turmoil, many companies worldwide are dealing with a shortage of qualified engineers to fill positions necessary to win the big contracts that can get their businesses back on track. Government leaders are concerned too, as they recognize that economic success in today’s world requires their respective nations become leaders in innovation in science and technology.

According to a study conducted by ManpowerGroup, which surveyed more than 38,000 companies in 41 countries, engineers ranked number-two among the hardest jobs for employers to fill in 2012 worldwide, up from number-four in 2011.

A study conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicated a serious shortage of engineers in many countries, including Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and the U.S., that could threaten the development of advanced technology in the automotive as well as other industries. As a result, UNESCO launched an Engineering Initiative in November 2011 to address issues behind the shortage.

Addressing shortage from educational angle

U.S. politicians for years have lamented the country’s falling competence among its students in math and science and have made improving the quality of math and science teaching a high priority. One solution is to expose students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields early on and use scholarships and inducements for them to choose STEM careers.

President Obama has declared a national goal of graduating 10,000 more engineers a year—a jump of 14% from the 72,300 engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011. While deans at most universities applaud all efforts to meet that goal, most agree that retention is the quickest and most economical way to increase engineering graduates.

Average retention rates at U.S. engineering schools are just 56%, with some as low as 30%. It’s a problem in Germany as well where the dropout rate for engineering students is 50%; a problem linked to deficiencies in math education at the primary and secondary school levels. To combat this problem, more universities are embracing active-learning techniques and giving first-and second-year students hands-on projects to keep them interested.

Is the shortage an immigration issue?

Some blame the U.S. government’s inability to enact pro-growth immigration policy as a factor in the shortage. Last fall the U.S. Congress blocked a plan that would offer more permanent-residency visas, or green cards, to foreign doctorate and master’s-degree students in science and technology fields. With science and technology companies facing labor shortages, granting citizenship or permanent residency to highly skilled immigrants could help the situation.

After all, the reality is that the U.S. technology industry is deeply dependent upon the talent of this pool of workers. More than 20 percent of all Americans with degrees in science and engineering are foreign-born, and almost a third of all computer science and engineering degrees are held by immigrants.

One possible solution is that the U.S. implement an immigration policy that would expand the number of green cards issued based on “employment-based preferences.” This visa would go to immigrants who hold advanced degrees with five or more years of professional experience or have at least two year’s worth of training in specialized fields.

Similar government initiatives are underway in Great Britain and Germany, where shortages of qualified engineers are causing significant disruptions in companies’ abilities to staff projects.

Should governments get involved?

In Great Britain, the engineering shortage has put a significant strain on its economy and has put some of its big engineering projects, such as High Speed Rail and scaling up its nuclear power stations, at risk. In a country where the best and brightest minds tend to opt for careers in law, medicine and civil service, a shortage of people with mathematics and science skills has had a profound effect on the overall economy.

While the government has tried to intervene, establishing an apprenticeship program and several programs to promote engineering, the business secretary, Vince Cable, described the dearth of engineers as “one of the biggest long-term challenges” facing the British economy.

According to a study commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British education system needs to double the number of graduates in mathematics, engineering, and other sciences it produces annually. It is projected that the country will need up to 217,000 engineers within the next five years to plug gaps in the workforce and help drive the economy.  Only about 90,000 students graduate with such qualifications each year, including foreign students not entitled to British work visas.

Even Germany, long known for its dominance in engineering, is experiencing a critical shortage of engineers. According to a study conducted by the German Engineering Association, 92,000 engineering jobs were not filled last year, leading to an estimated loss of about 8 billion Euros. The government has responded to the shortage with a number of measures, including changes in immigration rules that allow German companies to hire engineers from other countries.

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