Dearth of Engineers

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A paradigm shift in the energy supply infrastructure for the planet is being hesitantly postulated. It will entail, if implemented properly, the abandonment by mankind of fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy sources to generate electricity for all our energy needs. This is a potentially massive undertaking that cannot possibly be implemented without huge engineering effort. We are, in effect, going to have to create an industrial goliath, of similar proportions to the current automobile and aerospace industries combined, to produce renewable infrastructure at the pace required. From an engineering perspective, it is difficult not to ask the following question: 'Where are the professional engineers going to come from, given that there has been a serious dwindling of recruitment into engineering and science courses in our colleges and universities for the past 20 to 30 years?' This conundrum is especially apposite in relation to the older industrialised nations in North America and Europe, and for nations such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. To avoid an engineering skills dearth in these parts of the world, it is going to be necessary to massively expand education provision in an unprecedented way, which will ensure that colleges 'roll out', in sufficient numbers, the engineers, scientists and technicians that are going to be in demand between now and 2030, to propel what is nothing less than a renewables revolution - if it is initiated. It has been suggested that the energy industry 'tanker' is proving to be ponderously slow to turn towards renewables. However, this geriatric gait could possibly appear more like a foaming speed boat by comparison with the 'leviathan' of the education sector, a sector which is notoriously slow to change. As a former 'insider', it seems to me that if the call comes for more science and engineering graduates it is almost inevitable that the education sector's response will be lethargic to the point of immobility.

The problem for the education sector in the 'old' industrialised world is a disinterest in, and a lack of enthusiasm for, 'technology', particularly among the young, but also among not a few school teachers with weak science and mathematics backgrounds. In the UK, educational bias against engineering is not new. Even fifty years ago it was my experience as someone wishing to pursue a career in engineering, having qualified to enter university, that the available advice from teachers and others was distinctly unsupportive. This kind of reaction was not uncommon then and the indications are that it is even worse now, particularly in schools where the most able recruits are to be found. Whereas then, the advice was to study pure science or even the arts rather than engineering, now I suspect it is business, finance, and the law! Furthermore, it is becoming clear that a peculiar notion seems to have germinated in schools that 'education should be fun' and that it should be more about 'self-improvement and self-knowledge', than about 'understanding the physical world'. Sadly, even in our universities the idea is taking root that all knowledge is ephemeral and that it is skills which should be nurtured, since skills are forever. Such an ethos does not create engineers!

Science and mathematics teaching requires that students should be prodded, cajoled and encouraged to grapple with ideas and concepts that are often counterintuitive, and which demand considerable mental effort, before understanding is secured. The joy of the 'eureka' moment, which makes the intellectual effort all worthwhile, is being experienced sadly, by fewer and fewer students. In the secondary schools, where students make decisions about the university courses they will pursue, there is an acknowledged shortage of teachers in mathematics and physics, the essential precursors of undergraduate engineering studies [29]. My experience of many years teaching undergraduates in electrical engineering science, is that today, few students entering universities in the UK to study science or engineering have understood, or accept, the need to 'sweat a little' in order to gain mastery of an intellectually difficult topic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that diminishing technical skills among university entrants is also an issue in many other countries. The problem is that the pupils, from whom the required new engineers will have to come in very large numbers over the next twenty or so years to advance the 'renewables revolution', are already in an education system that values self-expression over numeracy. Consequently few are likely to gravitate towards engineering without massive incentives.

The drift away from engineering and science has also been exacerbated by the lack of role models in the medium that arguably has most influence on the thinking and attitudes of youngsters - namely television. This is not just a UK phenomenon. Aspiring medical doctors, lawyers, financiers, and business men have plenty of programmes that extol their roles in society, but you will look hard to find a programme that depicts an engineer as other than a repair man. Not that there is anything wrong with repair men (or women) but I doubt if even their doting mothers would describe them as professional engineers or fully trained technicians.

A comprehensive UK report [30] in 2002 stated the following: 'Engineering has an image problem resulting in a short fall (in 2001) of 21,000 graduates. An important message engineering educators need to get across is the far wider applications of their subject, raising awareness and understanding of engineering'. The report notes that, at the time of release, the basic output of engineers was effectively stagnating. Between 1994 and 2004 the number of students embarking on engineering degrees in UK universities remained static at 24,500 each year even though total university admissions rose by 40% over the same period. Further, after completing their studies less than half of UK engineering graduates subsequently choose to enter the profession [30]. The statistics have got worse since then, and the raw statistics do not 'paint the full picture'. The kind of electrical engineers we will be seeking, to advance the putative 'renewables revolution', are those with competency in electrical power and high voltage engineering. Unfortunately these topics are very unfashionable even among students studying electrical engineering, most of whom would rather study computer and communications orientated subjects, such as digital circuits, integrated circuits, signal processing, image processing and software engineering. Electrical power engineering courses are in danger of disappearing from many electrical engineering degrees in the UK, and there is little doubt this situation is being replicated in universities throughout the industrialised west.

The declining of engineering subjects in schools is growing, not just in North America and the UK, but in schools in Europe, Japan and Australia. International developments elsewhere make the implications of this situation not a little disquieting. Mature economies, such as that of the UK, must now compete with those of rapidly developing countries such as the BRIC nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China. On current projections the combined gross domestic products of the BRIC nations are set to overhaul those of the G6 countries (US, UK, Germany, Japan, France and Italy) by the year 2040. Furthermore the BRIC nations are producing record numbers of graduate engineers (but mainly civil and mechanical) to build the infrastructure of their rapidly expanding economies: powered, of course by coal and oil. In China and India alone, the most conservative estimates suggest that around half a million engineers now graduate each year [31]. Many of these engineers will hopefully gravitate from fossil fuel powered developments towards the task of creating a renewables based infrastructure. The potential for the BRIC block of nations to out-muscle the 'old' industrialised world in harnessing the technologies of the future is high, unless very large numbers of 'new' engineers can be plucked from the colleges of the G6 nations soon, and not by resorting to 'creative accounting'! The statistics are not encouraging for the industrialised west. In an Engineering Council survey in 2000 of the engineering profession [32] it is observed that: 'In Germany, over the period 1991-1996 the numbers of students entering science and engineering dropped by a startling 50%. In the USA, entrants to engineering courses have dropped by 14.5% over the period 1985-1998'. Recent trends show no indication that the erosion is not continuing. Hardly a week goes by without the director or chairman of some major company complaining, in the press or on television, that the lack of well trained engineering graduates is impeding growth or new developments. In an article in the Sunday Herald (UK) of the 18th May 2008, entitled 'Fuel bosses battle over new recruits', the following observation is made, which crystallises, I think, the looming difficulties for determined expansion of the electricity supply industry:

'With old and new energy sectors struggling in the face of a shortage of graduate engineers and other skilled workers, Bob Keiller, joint chairman of industry association Oil and Gas UK, accused the renewables sector of over playing its importance at the expense of his industry'. Personally given the threat we face, I find it hard to see how the 'renewables sector' could possibly 'over play its importance'.

Even allowing for the laudable enthusiasm for engineering training that exists in the BRIC nations, the global provision of adequately educated and experienced engineering manpower over the next 20 years, particularly those with electrical power engineering expertise, is still liable to fall far short of the numbers required to make possible a massive adoption of renewable technology, as dictated by the requirement both to meet effective emission reduction targets, and to make a rapid transition away from reliance on dwindling fossil fuels. This has to be done sooner rather than later.

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