Shortage of engineers

Recently my thoughts were wandering to the state of engineering in Holland these day. I do have a degree in mechanical engineering, though I’m working almost fourteen years in IT as a specialist. Now and then I get a bit nostalgic.

Usually I google on “shortage of engineers”, a lament from the industry which it is moaning about for at least twenty years. And behold, a small search results in articles as recent as this year. To many vacancies and to few student, Holland will descend in the Dark Ages if immediate action isn’t taken.

“Shortage? Really?”.
Unfortunately, this is not my experience and of many others, no doubt. I started my career in engineering as expected with my fresh degree and saw some industrial companies from the inside. What struck me most is that these companies were really struggling, as a result I was sacked twice.

Money was short and so was pay, those companies that were not in the red were very hardnosed to their employees. Cheap office space, no perks, and most of all they tended to sack their precious engineers at short notice when the economy went south.

Now that was many years ago and I made a switch to IT and the financial industry. An excellent decision. So did, and still does, exist really a shortage of engineers? Short answer, “no”.

Yet how does a western nation as Holland keep its level of high consumption? It clearly is lacking in innovation of new products, for which you need plenty of engineers. Innovation is a government policy for about 20 years and they keep failing at it. Also I can’t remember in recent years a new mind blowing product Holland showed the world. It is a riddle which is bugging me for many years. Especially now a see a lot of high value production (think Philips) and IT jobs going to Asia.

Borrow as if there’s no tomorrow.
I’m able to come up with only a few possible answers.

  • First, most production is local and can’t outsourced that easily. Think of toilet paper, canned food, produce etc. How badly does one need to innovate a can of fruit is syrup? The production of all this local consumption only need maintenance. Since only recently babyboomers starting to leave the workforce en masse, an urgent need for engineers didn’t exist really.
  • Secondly, we borrowed heavily from future generation. Most western nations have a serious debt problem, especially the Dutch households with its infamous mortgage scheme. Both government and private citizen are deeply in debt and with this debt they bought consumption. Obviously, as we learned last couple of years, this gig is up. For the last 40 years Holland could afford to do with less engineers, since we could so easily buy our consumption from other countries with borrowed money. The lenders start to not play along though.
  • Another part of Dutch society, the pensioners, got some extra consumption thanks to risky investments by the pension funds. These funds were allowed to invest more in risky stocks an bonds, which went well as long a the market went up. And up they pretty much did after the shock of 9-11. The result was that the funds could guarantee the benefits to the pensioners, offer early retirements and keep premiums low for contributors, the workforce. Of course they were kidding themselves, the stock market went south and some funds came in serious trouble. Again, it was guaranteeing a western style consumption without the necessary production. Therefore no engineers needed.

All this reflects in a poor labour market for engineers, whence gradual lower level of entries for engineering courses. Young people decided, and still deciding, to start careers in different industries, which is possible thanks to the massive debts. Well, until now that is.

“Mum! Dad! I’m going to be an engineer!”. “Are you sure about that, fruit of my lions?”. So you still want to be an engineer, but what future awaits you? What if there aren’t enough industrial companies?

Well, since the trick of borrowing from the future will be of the table, a western consumption lifestyle has to be in lock step with a proper production level. Already the pension age is raised in Holland and most likely young people will start to save like crazy as in Japan in lieu of future pension security. Maybe we have to work until we drop or when we can afford to stop. Either way we have to produce more ourselves.

Create your own engineering job!
What we need is new engineering and industrial businesses. And not just another failing government scheme, like an “Innovatie Platform”. Easier said than done, making a product needs machines, factory facilities and serious investments up front. You can start Google or Apple in a garage, a production line is a whole different ballgame.

It is possible though, just look at America. SpaceX is a rocket producing company which successfully launches into space. As is Scaled Composite or Aerojet. Sexy new innovative companies will inspire young people to become engineer and give them a proper job. As a bonus, governments won’t have to lure teenagers to engineering schools and deceiving them with the false prospect of a guaranteed job.

My final thought is that as an engineer you shouldn’t bemoan the lack of vacancies, but perhaps create you own job by starting an engineering business. An aerospace company might be far fetched, but I think there will be new opportunities for local production. Dutch society simply can’t get any more cheap credit to buy, increasingly expensive, Asian products and services.

Concluding, the best way to stop this silly discussion about engineer shortages is to teach engineers to start their own high tech business and that way inspire new generations to become engineer.