Many commentators lament that there won't be enough engineering students to fill future openings because of the profession's image problem and a declining interest in math and science. But hold up--there's something terribly wrong with that statement:
In the recent EDN article, No shortage of 'engineering shortage' talk
, executive editor Bill Schweber sets out to make one thing clear: we are NOT facing a dearth of U.S. engineers. Heck, we don't even know how many engineers we'll need, he points out.
And what of the two reasons stated for this so-called future shortage--a) the fact that engineering is not favorably perceived and b) students are shying away from math and science? Yes, they're both true statements, says Schweber, but they do not imply that there will be an engineering shortage.
He points out the circular reasoning that's confounding even the most knowledgeable people:
Insufficient number of engineers entering the field LEADS TO:
Companies recruiting engineers from overseas IN TURN LEADS TO:
Poor job outlook for U.S. engineers WHICH LEADS TO:
Insufficient number of engineers entering the field
To make a case for the engineering shortage, you can begin your reasoning from any point in this circle, he points out.
Instead of being trapped in this roundabout way of thinking, he encourages people to mull over three points when they're confronted with such "shortage" talk:
1) "The globalization of technology, design, and manufacturing makes worldwide design an inevitable and unavoidable fact," he writes. The number of engineers in the U.S. has little bearing on the global market, he points out.
2) Similar to what's happening in other industries, engineering productivity has soared in the last few decades, rising so rapidly that it has outpaced the increase in complexity of projects.
3) Most significantly, Schweber notes, the people bemoaning the so-called shortage often have something to gain from perpetuating the myth, from schools concerned about enrollment to companies looking for a richer pool of candidates to consider for their projects.
The truth is, says Schweber, no one can pin down what the demand for engineers will be. The number of engineers that our society needs is influenced by productivity advances as well as the type of design work that will be required.
He notes that even IEEE has taken a less than firm stand on the matter. While the Institute as a whole considers the shortage a fact, the IEEE-USA--the segment of the organization that represents working engineers in the U.S.--talks about "diminished opportunities, unemployment, underemployment and uncertainty."
And a quick look at this Web page
by the Bureau of Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, supports Schweber's contention that there is no impending engineering shortage. Over the period of 2002-2012, the bureau expects that the "number of engineering graduates should be in rough balance with the number of job openings" despite factors such as slow growth in overall engineering employment and offshore outsourcing.
In short, enough with the shortage talk already, says Schweber, unless you define an engineer as someone highly skilled with two to five years of experience and is willing to put in long hours and tackle complicated challenges for so-so pay and little recognition. Then we're looking at a real shortage, says Schweber, in the same way that you'll have a hard time getting a supply of gold for dirt cheap.
No Shortage of 'Engineering Shortage' Talk
EDN, May 26, 2005
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-2005 Edition
Engineers, on the Internet at www.bls.gov/oco/ocos027.htm