Saturday June 14, 2008
Interest in the professions dropping
INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
Singaporeans wonder whether the city state is losing sight of its high-tech strategy.
AFTER more than 10 years of building schools, a young friend, who is a civil engineer, has put away his hard hat to become a teacher in a secondary school.
It was a big career switch for him and a loss to the profession. He had graduated from Purdue University, one of the top engineering schools in America.
Another friend, an electronics engineer, distanced himself from his computers and became a professional photographer.
These are two cases that I am personally aware of in the decline of a profession that was once considered the cornerstone of Singapore’s development.
Many engineers have moved into the more profitable financial sector or sales and service jobs that are in greater demand.
It’s happening in the legal profession, too. The number of lawyers in Singapore has been in gradual but steady decline in the last few years.
“The attrition rate of lawyers is high, and the supply is not sufficient given the rising demand here,” said a recent report.
This professional decline is propelled by globalisation and the state’s move into a service economy. It is beginning to worry parents who sacrifice much to send their children for higher education.
Some engineers, I am told, are planning to get onto the casino bandwagon. Two mega gambling resorts are due to begin operation here in 2010.
With more than a million foreigners working here in low-level work, this decline is leading Singaporeans to wonder whether the city is losing sight of its high-tech strategy.
Retired civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, for one, is worried that the country may be heading towards a high cost, low-tech economy like London and losing its competitiveness.
Britain’s economic decline set in because ‘their best and brightest from Oxbridge, instead of going into engineering and running factories, went into the (financial) City of London’, he said.
“City of London ... they are not creators of wealth, they are just shuffling assets around the place,” Ngiam said.
This had allowed the United States to overtake Britain because “while some of their best went to Wall Street, their best still go into engineering,” he added.
If Singapore were to follow suit “I think we are done for”, said the bureaucrat, who helped to pioneer Singapore’s economic development
Recalling the 1970s, Ngiam said: “I used to tell everybody, what I want is 1,000 engineers, 5,000 technicians from the polytechnics, and 10,000 Institute of Technical Education workers. ‘You give me that, I grant you a job’.”
That has worked only too well. At the peak 40% of the university graduates were engineers.
Local institutions were meeting domestic demand with “a steady pipeline of 30,000 engineering and technical manpower each year”, a minister said.
And according to the Ministry of Manpower, the engineering-related sector still provided the largest number of job vacancies over the past two years.
In 2006, a third of the 3,639 top ten professional job vacancies were in engineering, it said.
And of the top 50 chief executives in Singapore, a third were engineers by training. An official said there are more than 50,000 practising engineers in Singapore, 50% of whom are women.
It is not known how much of these rosy statistics were made up of foreigners.
And as casino gambling and tourism catches hold, the profession’s future has become cloudier. Singaporeans will likely gravitate towards better paying jobs, irrespective of their training.
Interest in engineering courses has already been dropping.
Five years ago, 30% of the 16,000 polytechnic applicants chose engineering as their first-choice course. Last year, only about 15% of 18,000 students did so.
Foreigners are, however, making up for the drop. One economist said: “We may be facing a future where many of the developers of technology and their managers will be foreigners.”
Singapore is in transformation and there are few sacred cows that cannot be slaughtered.
This means Ngiam has a good reason to worry about the future of the engineer.
In his first major speech, new Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said: “More education does not necessarily mean more growth, as most politicians and economists unthinkingly suppose.”
At a time when Singapore is planning a fourth university, Ng countered the argument that having more universities stimulates economic growth,
Tertiary institutions, he said, should maintain a “focus on quality”, rather than “expanding education thoughtlessly”.
Some economists fear the government may be tempted by quick GDP growth at the expense of building on its high-tech strategy when it imports such a large number of cheap migrants.
Years ago, under different circumstances, Singapore had vowed not to allow itself to be addicted – like the Europeans – to cheap foreign labour.
After years of strong economic – and population – expansion the country is where Europe is, having an army of low-skilled workers from abroad.
Nearly a million foreigners came, not to mention another 700,000 permanent residents.
They wait on tables, build our homes, clean our streets and perform numerous tasks that keep the country going.
The biggest change, however, is in government strategy, in the view of some commentators.
Whatever professional skill was needed in the past, the emphasis used to be to train Singaporeans.
Today, this need has all but gone. Instead to save time and money, the government is turning to the world to tap its readily available supply of professionals.
One side effect isn’t pretty. While foreigners arrive in large numbers, more of Singapore’s homebred talents are leaving to settle abroad.