[VIEWPOINT]Without engineers, we are sunk

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[VIEWPOINT]Without engineers, we are sunk

Beginning several years ago, we have heard laments and concerns that fewer students are applying for science and engineering courses at our universities. That is a legitimate concern and one that needs attention at the national level. Our national goal is to become a leading industrial country with a national income per capita in the $20,000 to $30,000 bracket. To achieve that goal, we need a solid base of skilled scientists and engineers.

In 1998, 370,000 students applied for entry at university science and engineering departments. That figure had dropped to about 200,000 in 2002. According to another statistics, 56 percent of the highly-educated researchers and graduate school students in the science and engineering departments at our universities are considering switching their majors; 14 percent of them were actually in the process of switching to another major.

More surprisingly, 36 percent of the science and engineering students at prestigious universities are studying for the national civil service exams, such as the bar, administrative affairs and the foreign service examinations. Should this trend continue, the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Commerce predicts, South Korea's industries will have an annual shortage of 18,000 skilled workers by 2006.

There are many reasons for disinterest in these disciplines. The science and engineering curricula are difficult, and the monetary and social rewards to graduates are not commensurate with the effort that has to go into acquiring the necessary skills. Companies, the government and society in general do not appreciate these skills.

In the government service, we see non-engineers doing jobs that require engineering skills; in fact, only 20 percent of South Korean civil servants are science and engineering graduates. When the 1997 financial crisis hit the nation, the first persons to be laid off by our leading conglomerates were researchers.

If such problems persist, future economic growth will be hard to come by.

In order to produce the necessary number of scientists and engineers and protect Korea's competitiveness, some measures must be instituted.

One way to lure fleeing students back into engineering and science is to give tuition support and research grants. It is unfair to ask students alone to bear the burden of tuition fees that are 1.5 times higher than those for the humanities when we are training a workforce vital to the nation's backbone industries of the 21st century. Likewise, universities should not have to bear the hefty burden of providing expensive tools and equipment needed to improve the curriculum. So there appeared to be a ray of hope in the news that the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Commerce will get 100 billion won in its fiscal 2003 budget to produce a skilled industrial workforce. Other government agencies dealing with the supply of engineering manpower should follow that example.

Second, many of the nation's leading companies are moving production bases offshore or hiring foreign researchers in order to meet their short-term productivity goals. That is a strategy that may well backfire in the long term; the companies must be committed to the goal of establishing a pool of skilled Korean talent through whom we can increase the value added by our industries.

Third, data show that the science and engineering curricula at the University of California at Los Angeles are about 90 percent useable on the shop floor but the curricula at Korea's leading universities are only about 40 percent practical.

The burden of responsibility for creating a skilled workforce equipped with creativity as well as expertise lies with the professors at our universities. We have seen the importance of leadership as we watched South Korea's entry to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup games, and I have once again felt the importance of the task that I face in helping train our next generation of engineers and scientists.

The "Miracle on the Han" that stunned the world in the 20th century could not have been possible without a foundation of skilled Korean workers.

If we do not overcome the problems facing us, the opportunity for another round of economic miracles may well disappear.


The writer is a professor of civil engineering at Yonsei University.

by Kim Soo-il

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