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Why do we lack engineers?

I got more reader mail than usual on my recent piece on engineers, especially with the observation that Vietnam graduates twice as many engineers every year than we do, even with a slightly lower population than ours. The other observation that drew much comment was on how results of bar exams for lawyers always make it to the front pages of our newspapers, while that for board exams for engineers don’t.

Based on data compiled by the World Economic Forum in 2015, Vietnam produces 105 engineering graduates a year per 100,000 population, while we produce less than 50. The comparable figures for other Asean neighbors are 53 for Indonesia, 87 for Thailand, 175 for Malaysia, and around 200 for Singapore. South Korea produces 287 engineering graduates a year per 100,000 population, while Japan produces 132, and the United States has 73.

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Among all countries mentioned, we produce the least engineering graduates every year in proportion to our population, with only half of them actually passing the licensure exams to become full-fledged engineers.

“There are plenty of reasons why there is a dearth of engineers in our country,” wrote reader Heidi Kong, who introduced herself as a young business administration graduate. “One is, the educational system in our country is inadequate. It failed to entice kids to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses. Engineering has to do with science and math, [but] our science lessons are all book-related with only few experiments and less usage of laboratories … We should take the approach of Finland on how to instill the love of learning to kids so that they will become lifelong learners.”

She went on to argue that Filipino students find engineering courses too difficult. “When I was in college, I met several transferees from engineering courses … All of them had the same reason for transferring and taking a different course: they struggled in their engineering courses. I have a high school friend who took electrical engineering in Mapua University, but it took him eight years to graduate despite being very good in math.”

Her observations suggest that the problem traces to a weak foundation in science and math at the basic education level, thereby making engineering and other STEM courses too tough for the average Filipino student. Not surprisingly, then, the most popular college course in the country is business administration or commerce, apparently seen as the easiest route to a college degree.

Reader Wenceslao Banzon believes that “most of the country’s problems; big or small, partly or wholly, directly or indirectly, can be solved with help from science and engineering. Sad to say, the country’s current engineering capacity is inadequate to help solve these problems … The country is suffering from a profound industrial illiteracy.”

He argues that under these circumstances, the way to achieve higher industrialization is to “set up product development centers all over the country … [There are] millions of products out there for us to reverse-engineer to make these our own products, and including Filipino innovations, which can be further developed.”

Other readers see the problem from the demand side. Few students are drawn to engineering courses because there are not enough remunerative jobs awaiting them after graduation. The problem traces to the economy’s unattractiveness to investments in industrial enterprises that would employ our engineers. An anonymous online reader further cited “lack of government support and public appreciation to [engineers’] role in nation-building … While Filipino engineers are being hired abroad to take part in their host countries’ infrastructural development, they are not being given equal importance in the country’s own ‘Build, build, build’ program and are being sidelined or ignored in favor of Chinese engineers.”

It seems Filipino engineers aren’t valued enough, much less paid enough — so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we don’t produce them enough. There are demand and supply side fixes that need urgent attention. Lacking that, we’re condemned to continue being the least engineering – capable country among our peers.

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