In the last few months, I’ve seen articles and videos left and right ringing the alarm bell for an upcoming shortage of engineers. Available statistics point out 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.
Money has been a favorite tactic in Western societies to make things go our way. However, when dealing with people and what they do for a living, it is not that simple. You could increase the salaries of engineers, but that will only marginally convince more 18-year-olds to study engineering. In most countries, the wages of graduating engineers are already among the highest. So while money will definitely play a role in providing means to universities to expand the capacity of their engineering programs and to make sure that the students they train are ready for the current labor market, that is not really where the bottleneck is. It will be much harder to entice the next generation to pursue an engineering career than to expand university capacity. Globally, the number of engineering students has been increasing quite slowly. Definitely not growing at the multi-fold rate the world needs them.
While the US has room for growth in the sense that getting a college degree is only accessible to those with enough means, Belgium is a nice example of where that scenario is less acute. I won’t claim that the playing field is level in Belgium, but with a heavily subsidized education system, obtaining a Bachelor's or Master’s Degree is in theory accessible to those who want to. Definitely in comparison to the US. Despite the broader access to higher education, Belgium also has a shortage of STEM profiles. In that sense, the situation (and shortage) in Belgium is a nice “case study”.
The number of high school students choosing to study STEM at 16 over the past ten years is quite telling: It’s been more or less stable, somewhere between 41 and 44%. And similarly, about 20 to 30% of bachelor students go for a study in science, technology, engineering, or math. That number hasn’t changed much over time. Engineering may be able to ‘steal’ students from other STEM fields like the exact sciences or medicine, but that won’t do much good. Quite a few mathematicians, chemists, and physicists already end up in engineering roles naturally. Despite at least a decade of government and academic efforts to popularize STEM, the results are just not there. Should we accept that simply not everyone is interested in science and tech and chooses that as a career, even if we kind of need them to? After all, STEM degrees are competing with studies in languages, communication, economics, trades, history, etc. All absolutely relevant degrees as well. Obtaining an engineering degree requires effort too. It is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. Engineering students have to study and work hard. As is the case for any degree, graduates should master the skills required for the job.
For the solution to a stagnating interest, many experts and articles focus on a societal change: we need to fix the stereotypes. I am 100% with that. Science and math should not be thought of as ‘boring’, ‘hard’, ‘nerdy’, etc. None of those are particularly enthusing. However, eradicating those deep-rooted preconceptions doesn’t happen overnight – we may be out of time for the critical shortage around the corner by 2030. And, as much as we like to point the finger at local systems and even culture, similar scenarios are playing out in different Western countries and regions with different local systems and cultures.
The most evident short-term solution is to make sure people with a STEM degree don’t leave the field. I have said it in the past and I will say it again: Women are leaving STEM careers at an alarmingly high rate, i.e. 46% higher than men. Similar numbers can be found for other minority groups. They are not leaving because “they don’t have what it takes/had kids”. The engineering world – and STEM in general – needs to put inclusivity higher on its priority list. And not just to fluff up their brand image.
The next short-term strategy I see is immigration: Attract STEM talent from abroad. About 25% of the STEM workforce in the pre-2016 United States were not born in the US. Silicon Valley would not be the same without the brilliant minds it has attracted from abroad, especially from India and China, over the past decades. Part of the dramatic shortage the US is currently being confronted with is because of visa policies changed under Trump that made it much harder for tech companies to hire highly qualified foreigners. For European countries, language barriers complicate the matter compared to the USA, but those are not insurmountable.
When looking 5 to 15 years out, I am landing on diversity again as the most likely path to success. We need to get more girls – and minorities - to consider science and engineering as a career choice. They are the largest group of untapped potential. That means relentlessly fighting stereotypes, putting role models forward, debunking myths, showing the wide variety of opportunities in the field, etc. while not forgetting we are talking to teenagers (and their parents).
I don’t have data on this, but I have the impression that there are many more initiatives today to attract young women to study engineering and STEM in general than 20 years ago when I was 15. Today, I am part of several of these initiatives. In comparison, the growth has been rather slow despite all those programs. We could draw the conclusion that they just don’t work. I personally think the answer is that it is still not enough.
Girls are less encouraged to pursue STEM as a career than boys. There is hard data on that. How can we turn that around? Recently a study from 2015 on this topic resonated a lot with me. Research across 67 countries showed that girls and boys performed more or less similarly in science and math at school. However, girls outperformed boys in reading across the board. We have a school system and society that is often focused on relative performance instead of absolute strengths. The United States with its Gaussian grading system from A+ to F even more than the percentage grades many European schools use. When a young girl is good at reading and science, her reading capabilities will stand out more compared to her male classmates. Even though she is good at science too – even equally gifted as the boys in her class. Over time, it is likely that she – as well as her teachers and parents, will recognize languages/communication as a special talent and invest more in that. Boys, on the other hand, who perform less well at reading and writing, will more easily consider science and math as stronger school subjects. If a young girl scores 9/10 on spelling & grammar and 7/10 on math, she’s told she is really good at languages. When the young boy in her class comes home with a 7/10 for spelling & grammar and a 7/10 for math, he doesn’t get that same push toward languages and/or away from science and math. This scenario sounds eerily recognizable when I think back on the performance of my male and female classmates throughout school and my girlfriends one by one choosing more hours of languages over math/science. Not encouraging girls (enough) to opt for science and math is congruent with encouraging them in other fields, which isn’t necessarily wrong. However, being done consistently from a young age makes many girls (and society) believe they are just better at other subjects.
A few months ago, I was talking to female engineers who graduated around the same time as I did. We had a discussion about why they decided to study engineering. There were roughly two main groups: Those of us born in a STEM-family where one or both parents had/have STEM careers (that’s me), and those of us who were encouraged to consider STEM/engineering thanks to a devoted math or science teacher. There it is again. The people closest to us as children – parents and teachers – are not surprisingly the biggest influence. How they interpret our grades and encourage us accordingly goes a long way. And that is exactly why I stand by my statement that we – governments, companies, media, and schools – shouldn’t be discouraged by slow growth. We can still do more. We need to make it easier for boys and girls, as well as their parents and teachers to find their way to STEM. We need to continue to show boys and girls from a young age how fun and powerful science and technology are. We need to fight the stereotypes built into society ranging from the toys our kids play with to the way scientists and engineers are presented in the media. We need more diverse role models. We need to show the variability in STEM careers. And we need to continue to invest in all of that. Because those kids are literally the future.