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DEVELOPMENT: Running Out of Engineers

PARIS, Dec 31 2010 (IPS) - As Brazil looks ahead to hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the country is struggling to line up the technical workers necessary for these projects, officials say.

“We need to triple the number of engineers in the next few years,” says Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro, former state secretary of education of São Paolo.

Speaking at a conference here, Guimarães said Brazil needed around 360,000 engineers and technical workers for the global sporting events as well as for oil and gas exploration. The country has a severe shortage of such workers.

Brazil is not alone in this situation. Shortage of engineers in both developed and developing countries is a growing concern as it threatens national progress, says a report published by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Agency.

“Developing countries are the most affected,” says Tony Marjoram, editor of the report and senior programme specialist in UNESCO’s Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences.

“Wealthy countries can hire engineers on the international market, but this leads to brain drain in the poorer countries as many of their engineers go abroad to work,” he told IPS. “That’s if they’re still producing engineers in the first place.”

The UNESCO study, titled ‘Engineering: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for Development’, is the first international study of the field, with contributions from some 120 experts around the world. It highlights “the critical roles” of engineering in both international and local development.

In Brazil, for instance, the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recognized that the lack of technical workers was affecting the economy in the long term.

Experts have traced the dearth of technical skills to the educational system where only about 35 percent of students complete high school, according to Guimarães. The government has instituted measures, such as scholarships, to keep students in school longer and to enable thousands to attend colleges.

In the past, Brazilian students performed especially badly in maths and science, on basic-skills tests such as those administered by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Such results tend to rule out engineering as a career.

The situation is not much different in the rest of Latin America, says the UNESCO study.

“One of the reasons cited for Latin America lagging behind in its development is that practically all economists of the region have placed their hopes on the role of the market and have ignored the fundamental role played by research and engineering in the development process,” the report says.

It added that “interest for the engineering profession for high school students is minimal” in Latin America.

Still, the spectacular role played by engineering in the October rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days has heightened the profile of the sector and may make it more appealing to students, says UNESCO’s Marjoram.

“The rescue showed engineering at its best,” Marjoram told IPS. “One of our problems is that engineers don’t know how to promote themselves, but that event revealed what can be achieved.”

Marjoram said that universities and technical schools also need to change the way engineering is taught to make it more attractive to students, especially to groups under-represented in the profession.

“One of the reasons for the decline in engineering’s popularity among students is the 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,” he said.

Educational programmes could instead focus on the uses of engineering in sustainable development, environmental protection and poverty reduction. Such a focus might attract more women and minorities, Marjoram said. There are few female students in engineering programmes at universities across the world. In the West, engineering classes are often more that 80 percent male, according to professionals in the field.

“I was the only woman in my year when I did engineering in 1976,” says Amira Hanna, an Egyptian-born, Australian-educated engineer. “I found this very surprising. I couldn’t understand why in a Western society there were so few women doing courses leading to engineering. Things weren’t easy then and they are still not that easy.”

For many countries, the challenge is to make the sciences attractive to girls and this requires commitment at all levels, from governments down to primary school educators, Hanna told IPS in a telephone interview from Melbourne.

In Tunisia, the government says it plans to double the number of graduates in engineering from the current 3,000 per year, in order to sustain economic growth in the country, and to meet the needs of companies.

Kamel Ayadi, a civil engineer and former secretary of state in the Tunisian government, said that engineering was one of the “few main professions to emerge” after Tunisian independence was attained in 1956.

However, from being an “extremely attractive” profession, engineering has now experienced “a disturbing decline in interest” among the younger generations in the past years, Ayadi said.

In Nigeria and many other sub-Saharan African countries, engineers have not been actively involved in policy matters, according to Felix Atume, secretary general of the Federation of African Organisations of Engineers.

“Political leaders, it seems, hardly take into consideration the key role that engineers and engineering can play in development,” he said, citing examples of governments’ embarking on “massive projects to provide infrastructure” but without engineering input.

“The result is that huge sums of money are spent but the desired results are not achieved,” Atume said in the report.

“It is indeed sad that African engineers have little or no voice in their governments…engineering is overlooked and development is stalled even when huge resources are committed,” he added.

“The cumulative effect is that many young people in Africa are no longer interested in joining the engineering profession. They are turning to law, economics, accountancy and marketing.”

In contrast, the United Nations estimates that about 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.

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