Engineering shortage after recession – by Adelle Larmour

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. This article is from the April, 2011 issue.

Retiring workforce and declining immigration creating gaps in engineering sector

An aging and retiring workforce, coupled with declining immigration rates, has increased the demand for engineers as the economy picks up speed. There appears to be a gap in several areas, led by civil engineers, according Daniel Young, acting CEO for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, a member- service organization representing almost 10,000 members.

“As we come out of the recession, there is a tremendous need for engineers, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” said Young, adding that as industry gears up, there are not enough engineers to fill the demand.

He pointed out that civil engineers are in huge demand because of the large number of retirements, a slowdown in immigration, infrastructure initiatives, and the fact that the universities have not graduated enough of them. As a 40-year veteran of civil engineering, Young said it is the most diversified of all the disciplines, which may be another reason for the demand compared to other engineering services.

Lakehead University’s dean of engineering Henri Saliba has also seen the demand for civil engineers, as well as electrical, mechanical and software engineers.

He said the civil, mechanical and electrical engineering departments have more than doubled from admitting 50 students to almost 120 in each class.

He also said software engineering is coming back and people are starting to realize there is a huge shortage in this domain.

“In terms of employment, there is a large demand for software engineering,” he said, although he sees students steering away from the industry because of a perceived notion that computer technology is bloated.

This is partly due to highprofile events such as the bursting of the high-tech bubble, as well as the Nortel debacle.

“People are using computers,” Saliba said. “They need software. Engineering systems need to run and they are all automated.

Students don’t realize it, but it is coming back.” Lakehead ’s engineering program is unique in that students graduate with a combined engineering technology diploma and engineering degree for chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical and software engineering.

With an intake of about 300 students annually, including third-year college transfers, the program has grown significantly over the years.

Employment rates are 100 per cent, according to Saliba, because graduates exit the program with applied skills as well as the theoretical knowledge.

“They go through the technology and engineering at the same time, and at the end of the day, when they graduate, they are a lot more familiar with what occurs on the shop floor or at the job site than any graduate engineer because of the nature of the program and the way it is delivered,” Saliba said.

There is also a shortage of engineers with their professional designation, or professional engineers.

“In Ontario, there are more than 225,000 engineers and only 75,000 are registered,” Young said.

To be registered, they must become professional engineers.

This is not always a learning path embraced by graduating students that have just spent four to five years studying in their respective field and are eager to obtain work and earn an income.

The academic and work experience required to become a professional engineer requires a four-year internship after graduation, Young said, “and many don’t want to spend the time to do that.”

Saliba said Lakehead’s engineering students often seek out registration after graduation, which is encouraged.

He added that their students are desired by firms from across the country because of their high level of job-readiness.

Consulting engineers represent another sector with a shortage.

It is a profession that is far-reaching, but requires professional engineering qualifications.

As well, there is another four to five-year training period, meaning the starting salary may not be equivalent to that of other engineering fields.

One of the biggest issues is the difficulty in hiring and retaining competent individuals in this sector, said Barry Steinberg, president of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario, a non-profit organization representing the business and professional interests of approximately 225 Ontario consulting engineering companies.

Consulting engineering firms provide professional engineering services related to construction, environment, energy, mining, and the like.

They are given a certificate of authorization through the Professional Engineers of Ontario, the regulator for engineers.

“There isn’t much that you use that has not been touched by the hands of a consulting engineer, right from the water you drink,” said Steinberg, a mechanical engineer who also practiced as a consulting engineer.

They normally work in teams to design and build infrastructure projects. The teams can include specialist engineers, generalist engineers, planners, technologist, surveyors, architects, environmental biologists, geoscientists, construction specialists and a host of others.

Steinberg said there are a couple of reasons why they have difficulty recruiting young people into the consulting field.

One is that the initial pay may be lower than other sectors. However, once trained over a four- to five-year period, the monetary reward is more lucrative and the ceiling much higher.

Secondly, the business of consulting has a steep learning curve.

“Consulting is more like law or accounting, because people are paying for time,” Steinberg said. “Engineering school is great, but it doesn’t teach you about the business of engineering.

It doesn’t teach you about all the applications.” He added that the profession has a long training period and there is a lot of liability.

But it is also a very important profession with much to offer.

“I think if we could get our graduates to think longer term about their careers, more people would go into consulting.”