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In search of top engineers

Our country produced about 50,000 engineering graduates last year, ranging from sanitary to civil engineers (the latter being the most numerous), with only about half passing the board exams to become licensed engineers. While I couldn’t find Vietnam’s latest numbers, that country produced twice as many (100,390) engineering graduates in 2015, even with a population (95 million) less than our 101 million. That statistic alone explains a lot about why Vietnam has already surpassed the Philippines in so many ways, particularly in level of industrialization.

In a country where results of the bar exam for lawyers make front page news while engineering board exam results merit little, if any, media attention, there must be something wrong with our priorities. Fresh engineering graduates reportedly earn an average of P19,000 a month, little more than the average of P15,000 earned in nontechnical positions. And yet engineers arguably make a far greater contribution to raising the economy’s output and welfare than lawyers can.

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Take Dr. Ricardo Orge, for example. The son of a coconut farmer from Leyte, he witnessed firsthand the difficulties Filipino farmers face trying to make ends meet, which he says impelled him to dedicate his work to improve their lot. As an agricultural engineer at the Philippine Rice Research Institute, he developed technologies to improve farm processes and support alternative livelihoods for rice farmers. Among his inventions is a continuous-type rice hull carbonizer that turns an ubiquitous farm waste material into useful energy. Farmer cooperatives in Nueva Ecija and Bulacan now benefit from his invention, cutting costs and dependence on fossil fuels, using renewable energy generated from the machine to speed up mushroom culture and production.

Turning trash to treasure has also been the contribution of chemical engineering professor Dr. Evelyn Taboada, dean of the College of Engineering in the University of San Carlos in Cebu City. Like Orge, her work has been on deriving economic value from common organic waste matter, thereby stretching the value chain of farm products.

Leading a team of engineers and researchers, her research found good use for tons of mango wastes from local mango processing plants, turning them into high-value products like flour, animal feed and pectin. The research paved the way for construction of a processing plant that now employs erstwhile garbage pickers, providing them higher and more stable incomes. She and  Orge have shown that engineers can do much to create jobs and alleviate poverty.

And then there’s Dr. Rex Demafelis, a University of the Philippines Los Baños professor, also a chemical engineer. Like  Orge, he championed projects on alternative energy. Seeing sugar farmers in Negros Occidental lose their livelihoods as a result of reduced planting of sugarcane, he introduced sweet sorghum as a substitute crop to be planted in former sugarcane areas in Sagay City. Working with the local government, his technology for turning sorghum into ethanol has improved the lives of hundreds of otherwise displaced sugarcane farmers.

The Manila Water Foundation (MWF) Prize for Engineering Excellence has recognized Orge, Taboada and Demafelis, along with geodetic engineer Dr. Enrico Paringit and electrical and electronics engineer Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, whose joint work on remote sensing using lidar (light detection and ranging) technology has helped improve disaster preparedness in vulnerable areas of the country, and Dr. Merlinda Palencia, whose work on treating wastewater renders it clean enough to return to bodies of water. Dedicated to empowering marginalized communities via improved water access, sanitation and hygiene, the MWF established the award to give due recognition to a critical but little-rewarded (and awarded) profession in our country.

Check out https://manilawaterfoundation.org/mwf-prize-engineering-excellence if you know an engineer worthy of the prize, and help make their profession more attractive and better appreciated. Perhaps we would also help our engineers make it to front-page news, the way our new passing lawyers always do.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, engineers, farmers, industrialization, inventions, Lawyers, No Free Lunch, rice, search
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