Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Before you jump into the Engineering bandwagon...

Readers might think that I have very reason to be cynical.

Graduating in 1999 with an engineering degree would have been great if not for the actions by the Government to welcoming foreign engineers into our economy which kept all engineers on a low salary scale. As a consequence of that, Engineering departments in local universities became dumping grounds with better engineering students aspiring to succeed as bankers instead of joining the technology field.

The SMRT breakdowns are a symptom of at least a decade of prioritising services over operations.

The government timing to refocus on engineering could not be better. And I should be upset as I'm already in Law School and the new SIM university would be soon in place to create a steady supply of community lawyers possibly making me the worse market timer for my human capital in the financial blogosphere.

Should I be bitter ?

Nah... Just because I'm in Law School does not make me less of a Technologist. If anything, I am completing my education to become a domain expert. Once I get an idea of how legal practice work, I would be able to tap on my friends to see if a solution to legal partner's problems can be resolved with IT automation. There is'nt too many Lawyer/Engineers so LegalTech will stay a blue ocean field in Singapore for quite a while.

Nevertheless, I think PM Lee's drive to make engineering relevant again is credible.

First, the government is willing to create a thousand baseline jobs to give the average engineering graduate a steady vocation upon graduation. This way they don't have to resort to selling insurance, MLM or real estate to have a decent income. Second, the government is rolling out the red carpet to incite the big boys like Facebook and Google to hire the best engineering students. So the really brilliant guys are covered.

I would have been more excited if Singapore would put in place more substantial measures to resolve the Changalore problem but the government has to tread carefully in order not to drive investments away so I don't see this moving beyond empty rhetoric in the medium term.

Here's some advice for the young undergrad who has chosen to major in Engineering.

a) Your degree depreciates really quickly. Start planning for an advanced degree immediately.

You hit to hit hard and fast when you join the job market. Your skills would devalue within 3-4 years due to the paradigm shifts taking place in the software industry. What matters are the fundamental skills you pick up in university like Statistics, Technical Writing, Law, Management and Accounting. Focusing on Micro-electronics and Digital Signal Processing will ruin you as your industry disappears along with jobs which require this expertise. For me, the best investment I made in NUS Engineering school was joining the Toastmasters club, it remains useful to me in Law School when I moot against my classmates. ( At least I have fewer time-fillers when making my submissions. )

On day one of your first job, you need to start plotting for an MBA, MAF, MPA,CFA or like me, the JD.  Your skill with numbers should not be underestimated and the higher engineering salaries help in planning for the financing of your advanced degree.

b) Expect your income to look like an inverse parabolic curve so investing is crucial for personal success.

Your salary will rise for the first ten years, stagnate for the next 5, and probably decline after that. If you are not an investment banker, lawyer or doctor, your salary will not escalate every year and experience matters less in an industry which changes so abruptly. Chance are you need to be able to save more and invest to maintain your salary momentum.

Fortunately, you have a higher starting pay and no real expectation to dress well or spend like a lawyer. You need to save and invest that difference. Preferably, you need to start generating passive income to cover for the days where you have to go back to school or start a small business.

c) You need to be global. And it's not just being able to work with foreign colleagues.

This is something I personally struggle with. Ideally, an engineer needs to be very mobile and must find work in any part of world which is willing to pay for his expertise. Silicon Valley respects technical professionals and pay up to $120,000 for some technical skills.

The next generation needs to completely master the art of geo-arbitrage. Work for an American firm, pay taxes under the Middle East, Invest for yields in Singapore and spend in Indian Rupees.

d) Never forget that it is not in Singapore's interest for engineers to become too rich.

The most important lesson is something I learnt a little too late.

Some professions exact a heavy toll on society if they are paid too well. Paying nurses and allied health professionals too well would make healthcare unaffordable. Paying criminal and family lawyers too richly would deny access to justice for lower income groups.

Same goes for engineers. The government can control the tap  and bring in more engineers from lower income nations to keep costs low for businesses if hiring good engineers become too prohibitive. They did this in 90s and the 2000s. Engineers are particularly vulnerable because businesses need them to survive and they are too tame to protest when policies change.

That is the most important consideration if you decide on a Technical career. You need to quickly exploit your higher salaries and numerical expertise to carve a more certain future for yourself. The Facebooks and Googles of today will rapidly become the HPs and Yahoos of tomorrow.

This means not locking yourself down to a sector or industry. And this also means not locking yourself down to a country or region.

Look after yourself and enjoy the fine toys you get to play with in Engineering school !


  1. Hi Christopher,

    Good thoughts! Engineers are really underpaid in Singapore but ... I recently heard of some companies that offer good remuneration for Engineers. Hopefully times will change.

    Other than furthering education, I think essential money-making skills like sales, marketing, investing, and mindsets like frugality and calculated-risk taking would help build wealth.

    I used to be an Engineer. Finishing projects or solving problems can be extremely fulfilling.
    Kudos to all the Engineers out there! You are all valuable members of the society!

  2. Thanks for sharing !

    Wealth is relative. Paying engineers well will not result in more people attracted to the profession if engineers are not wealthy relative to other professions.

    Engineers want to win.

    But society cannot have everyone be winners.

  3. Hi Chris,

    It remains to be seen what kind of jobs the likes of Google and Facebook etc will bring to S'pore Engineers. My experience from previous American MNCs is that they will not bring their best products out here for us to do R&D. Which means, what we are getting might be cash cow products but not the latest in terms of technology.

  4. I agree.

    My experience with P&G tells me that the North American headquarters will not allow the cutting edge projects to be helmed by Asian engineering teams. But it's up to the folks who get into these companies to maneuver their way into HQ.

    It's great that they are investing in Singapore instead of Bangalore.

  5. Hi Chris

    Thanks for sharing your views.

    Your geo-arbitrage comment is funny. I've been working in the mining industry in a FIFO (fly in fly out) arrangement and I spend my annual leave trekking in India.

    I shared my experiences with a friend's younger brother. He contemplates on studying engineering and he wants good $$$.
    Yes, not too long ago (when oil prices were $100 bucks), engineers can make good living by working on an drill rigs/mine site, get paid in USD, fly off to Thailand/Philippines during the days off and blow their money there there. All the ang mo oil/gas drillers have been doing that for years.

    As you can see, there are some serious downsides to this lifestyle. Minimal opportunities for long term relationship, inability to "settle" down, indulgence in vices etc. There is a price to pay for a nice fat salary. 16-20hr work days in law or finance, family life, health, emotional well being.

  6. Thanks for dropping by chewyc !!

    As I've spent most of my career on land, I still envy you offshore guys quite a bit.

    I guess the best way to handle the downside of this lifestyle is to decide what your "fuck you" number is. May be good to set about $500,000 in savings as the threshold to decide to leave this lifestyle and choose something which allows a person to settle down in a long term relationship.

    If you become addicted to the high pay and have a lifestyle to match, it will all be over once the economy changes.