Timely to relook perceptions about engineering as an attractive career

THE issue of how to lure Singapore's overseas-based engineers back home, and how to make the profession a more attractive and lucrative one, has been in the news of late.

On a week-long trip to California earlier this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited major tech giants such as Google and Facebook, and encouraged the several hundred Singaporeans he met to return home one day and contribute to society and the economy.

But getting them to quit their jobs, uproot their families and give up what they have in Silicon Valley - or anywhere else, for that matter - is a tall order. As Mr Lee rightly pointed out, it is more than just a matter of pay or being able to find a job. Companies here, especially those that put engineering at the core of their business, need to be able to offer them the same level of challenges and opportunities that they are currently getting abroad.

There are some encouraging signs that seem to indicate that engineering is fast rediscovering its "cool" factor. A number of global technology firms are busy expanding their operations in Singapore and giving citizens here good jobs. Just last week, Google said it would acquire local business managing start-up Pie to start a Singapore-based engineering team. Separately, Ghost, a free blogging platform, announced that it would move its operations from the UK to Singapore.

The current perceptions about engineering among many Singaporeans, however, is also something that needs to change over time. For one, the profession here is not as highly valued as it is in Silicon Valley. Mr Lee noted last week that Singaporeans tend to see the job as a support function, and urged the country to reposition its concept of what engineering is about, and how important it is to the country's success.

With Singapore resolutely on a quest to become a smart nation, the time is ripe to focus on the merits of engineering. As Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation initiative, recently put it, there is a need to "make engineering sexy again, to persuade many more young people to build the future".

With the Singapore economy in its next phase of restructuring to focus more heavily on creating value, there is a pressing need for people who are strong in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The technology revolution and the many exciting developments in Silicon Valley of late have inspired more to consider taking up engineering and IT jobs.

The government, the largest employer in Singapore, is leading the way in this effort with plans to hire about 1,000 engineers this year, a move that will expand the current pool of 7,700 by more than 13 per cent. Public-sector engineers can also look forward to better salaries and more structured career progression that will groom them for leadership roles. The Infocomm Development Authority is working on proposals to draw tech experts back home and is expected to announce these soon.

Of course, it's not just the responsibility of the state - all stakeholders should play their part, given that engineering as a career is facing stiff competition in this increasingly tight labour market. The private sector, schools and even training institutes can chip in too, by making the jobs and classes more exciting and interesting. The entire eco-system has to work in sync for the profession to move upwards.

This article was first published on February 23, 2016.
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