The Flight From Science

Engineering is a cool and sexy career that can take you around the world—at least according to new advertising campaigns from the engineering industry. As the New York Times recently reported, young college graduates in the United States, Europe, and Japan are increasingly foregoing careers in science in favor of more financially or personally rewarding fields, like business or medicine. Companies around the world are feeling the effect of this so-called “flight from science” in the form of a depleted workforce, and the engineering industry is stepping up its recruitment efforts in an attempt to minimize the shortfall. As a result, qualified engineers are becoming a hotter, and more global, commodity. Many companies are scrambling to find the human resources they need to remain competitive.

Experts and observers in the engineering field estimate the industry is short approximately 500,000 engineers, and the outlook for the future looks glum. They also estimate that approximately 75% of engineering companies expect a decline in recruiting in the coming year. This is due in part to a general decline in the popularity of most engineering majors, but also to the fact that many of the students who graduate with engineering degrees choose not to become engineers and instead work in some other, related field. In some fields, such as electrical engineering, up to 60% of graduates choose a non-engineering career path after college.

With this widespread decline in the number of qualified engineers, many countries, particularly in Western Europe and North America, are struggling to meet local demands for qualified, experienced engineers. More and more companies are either expanding their recruiting efforts to international markets, particularly in developing countries, or outsourcing engineering jobs to Vietnam or India, where well-educated engineers are more plentiful. And, as an added bonus for those companies, engineers from those countries command a lower compensation package, letting the companies achieve significant cost savings when they choose to use outsourced labor.

The “flight from science” and the resultant outsourcing trend in the engineering industry have policymakers concerned about national competitiveness in technology fields. Yet, the outsourcing trend suggests that future generations in the most advanced industrialized countries will continue to move away from commoditized technological fields. This will concentrate engineering and other technology industries in countries like Vietnam and India, so long as those countries are able to provide the workforce. So far, the prognosis is quite good.