The shortage of engineers is a central theme of the first international report on engineering just published by UNESCO, entitled “ Engineering: Issues, challenges and opportunities for development ”. Based on contributions by more than 120 experts around the world, the Report is intended as a platform for better understanding of engineering, an extraordinarily diverse and pervasive activity that has been central to human progress since the invention of the wheel.
More than ever, the world needs creative engineering solutions to face its biggest challenges, from poverty to climate change. Yet many countries are seeing a decline in the enrolment of young people, especially women, in engineering studies. The slump endangers future engineering capacity, particularly in developing countries where brain drain is an additional problem
“In the past 150 years in particular, engineering and technology have transformed the world we live in,” notes UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in the Report’s foreword. But the benefits they have brought are unevenly distributed throughout the world – nearly three billion people, for instance, do not have safe water, and nearly two billion people are without electricity.
As the 2015 deadline for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches, Ms Bokova continues, “it is vital that we take the full measure of engineering’s capacity to make a difference in the developing world.”
The escalating demand for engineering talent is highlighted throughout the Report. It is estimated, for instance, that some 2.5 million new engineers and technicians will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone if the region is to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of improved access to clean water and sanitation. Meanwhile experts predict the global market for climate change solutions – such as low carbon products and renewable energy systems - will rapidly reach US$1 trillion dollars and continue to grow.
At the same time, the shortage of engineers is marked in many countries. Germany reports a serious shortage of engineers in most sectors, and in Denmark, a study showed that by 2020 the labour market will be lacking 14,000 engineers. And although in absolute numbers the population of engineering students is multiplying world-wide, percentages are dropping compared to enrolment in other disciplines. In Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and the Republic of Korea, for example, enrolment decreases of 5 to 10% have been recorded since the late 1990s.
“The decline in engineering’s popularity among students is apparently due to a perception that the subject is boring and hard work, jobs are badly paid considering the responsibilities involved, and engineering has a negative environmental impact, and may be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution,” explains Tony Marjoram, the Report’s editor.
Regarding gender parity and promoting capacity in engineering, efforts to boost women’s participation in many countries had increased enrolment in the 1980s and 1990s from 10-15% to 20% and even above, but since 2000 the numbers have been sliding back down. In some countries the percentage of women in engineering is below 10%, and in a few countries there are virtually none at all. A recent two-year study in the United Kingdom of why engineering does not attract more women pointed to persistent stereotypes that identified it as a strictly technical, masculine occupation.
Not only students have misconceptions about engineering – it is “routinely overlooked in the context of development policy and planning,” says Mr Marjoram, and in addressing the MDGs, for example. The Report points to an overall need for better public and policy-level understanding of engineering and how it drives development. This is particularly crucial in the aftermath of the global financial crisis; the Report underlines the importance of investing in infrastructure and innovation in times of economic downturn.
To generate more interest and enrolment, engineering itself requires innovation and transformation, and the Report makes a number of suggestions. New approaches must be developed in education and training, notably hands-on, problem-based learning that reflects engineering’s problem-solving nature. Another major area of growth relates to sustainable or “green” engineering. “Engineering needs to promote itself as relevant to solving contemporary problems, to become more socially responsible and to link to ethical issues related to development,” explains Mr Marjoram. “This will also help attract young people.”
The Report also emphasizes the urgent need for improved statistics and indicators on engineering. It is not possible at present, for instance, to compare the numbers or types of engineers per capita around the world, because such data at the international level aggregate scientists and engineers. Refining indicators would drastically improve the information available to policy-makers and planners.
The Report identifies more than 50 fields of engineering and looks at engineering around the world, giving regional and country perspectives. Focused on engineering’s contributions to sustainable human, social and economic development, it discusses issues, applications and innovation, infrastructure, capacity-building and education, illustrated through case studies and examples of good practice.
This first UNESCO Report on engineering grew out of informal discussions in 2005 with members of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences (CAETS), the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), Engineers Without Borders and related professional and non-governmental engineering organizations.
Dr Tony Marjoram, Basic and Engineering Sciences,
Natural Sciences, UNESCO, France
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