In the last few months, I’ve seen articles and videos left and right ringing the alarm bell for an upcoming shortage of engineers. More than usual. Is the situation really worse today compared to 5, 10, or 20 years ago? Or is it just a matter of dramatic headlines trying to fight for our attention as crisis after crisis numbed us for anything that doesn’t seem like the end of the world?
Even when I chose to enroll in the faculty of engineering in 2005, it was generally understood that an engineering degree meant high job security. As a true millennial, I graduated shortly after the 2008 financial crisis hit, when job openings were at a historic low. But even then, it didn’t seem that my graduation class was struggling to find a job. For as long as I can remember, there was always a high demand for engineers. Is the situation today worse than before?
Let’s throw some logic at it. It makes sense that the shortage now and in the foreseeable future will be worse than ever. For starters, in the next five years when this extreme shortage is predicted, most boomers – the largest generation – will have retired (depending on the country). For simplicity, we could say that a company needs to hire as many engineers as the number of retirees to keep the status quo. If a tech company has growth ambitions, it should hire even more. So just in body count, there is a reasonable argument that there will be an increased demand for engineers. However, the technology sector is not really going for a status quo or even just growth. The world is pretty much on fire.
We will need a record amount of engineers to keep up with the required innovation in climate and energy tech to slow down global warming or survive its consequences. The next 5 to 7 years are critical. In general, the impact of technology on all parts of our lives is skyrocketing. The pandemic accelerated digitization. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the latest advanced technology to trickle down to the masses. Even previously low-tech industries like fashion employ more engineers year after year.
On top of that, Europe and the United States both continue to invest in technology to consolidate their leadership role and/or become more independent. A perfect illustration of that is the recent US CHIPS+ Act and European Chips Act that strive to amplify the local semiconductor industry in the USA and EU respectively to become less dependent on Asia for the supply of the electronic chips the Western world has grown so addicted to. Whether it is electrical engineering, software engineering, or mechanical engineering, really all engineering fields – which already reported a ‘shortage’ for decades – will need even more engineers in the coming years.
The statistics back up this logic. At KULeuven, one of Belgium’s main universities for engineering degrees, the number of students went from 6143 to 6415 between 2019 and 2022. That is a reasonable increase of about 4,4%. (As a reference, the Belgian population during that time only grew by 1,3%). The job openings for engineers in Belgium during those four years increased by 27%. So demand is clearly growing faster than supply. According to Belgian newspaper De Tijd, the popularity of STEM in high school has been on a consistent downward trend since 2017, now at 42%, despite many efforts from the Belgian government, the education system, and the private sector to stimulate STEM-fields in school.
In the US, a similar scenario is playing out. The unemployment rate for engineers in the USA is at a record low, flirting with 1%. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that between 2016 and 2026, a shortage of 6 million engineers will have built up. The CHIPS+ Act creates a demand for 50,000 semiconductor engineers in the next five years in the United States, far exceeding the number of current graduates in the field. You can’t build and run a semiconductor fab without a workforce. In response, Purdue University, well-known for its engineering program, aims to increase its number of semiconductor engineering students from 150 to 1000 in the near future – very ambitious.
It seems that the worries about a shortage of engineers are legit. How can it be fixed? Given the timeframe we’re navigating, we need a quick fix. And preferably there is a long-term strategy as well. Read more in part 2.