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Engineers sought

Industry associations propose doubling the number of professionals to help Brazil grow

Miguel Boyayan Stay bridge, São Paulo’s new landmarkMiguel Boyayan

Several professional sectors are feeling the effects of the saturation of the labor market and advocate limiting the opening of new university courses. The engineering associations, on the other hand, are not afraid to propose the opposite: they feel it is crucial to multiply the number of engineering schools and engineering graduates in Brazil. The Cresce Brasil [Grow Brazil] campaign, led by the National Federation of Engineers, has pointed out the need to double the number of engineers in the next 10 years, if the country wishes to grow at rates of 5% and 6%, as was the case in 2007. “We don’t have enough engineers in certain fields of engineering and this will become even more serious if the country maintains this pace of growth”, says Murilo Celso de Campos Pinheiro, president of the São Paulo State Engineers’ Association and  the National Federation of Engineers. “The economic growth program will depend on thousands of engineering graduates to achieve its objectives”, Pinheiro adds.

Several sectors are already facing well-known bottlenecks, especially in the petrochemical and mining industries. Recently, the CEO of Vale, Roger Agnelli, complained about the difficulty of hiring metallurgical engineers and engineers specialized in building dams – as well as of hiring skilled workers, such as pipe welders. Petrobras’ goal of hiring 60 thousand engineers with post-graduate courses in the next three years is jeopardized by a shortage of such professionals. Of the 10 thousand doctorates and 30 thousand professionals with master’s degrees entering the market every year, only a little over 10% are in the fields of engineering or computer sciences, according to data from Capes, the coordination office for the improvement of personnel with higher education. In countries such as China and South Korea, this figure is 70%. Even such a traditional field as civil engineering has fewer graduates than the number of skilled professionals that the country needs. The recent civil construction boom has led to reports on the difficulties of hiring civil engineering professionals in such states as São Paulo and Bahia. In spite of the obstacles imposed by the law, foreign engineers are being imported from countries such as Chile, Argentina and the United States. “We pretend that we don’t see what’s happening”,  says civil engineer Vahan Agopyan, a professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo. “This is not an issue of prejudice or corporatism. The point is that engineering courses are different in each country, which makes the integration of the foreign professionals more complex. The ideal situation would be to do some planning so that the foreign engineers are obliged to take post-graduate courses in Brazil”, he suggests.

According to a report prepared by Cresce Brasil, the fields that should be more strongly focused on are as follows: production engineering, mechanics and electronic engineering, the performance of which, as measured by articles published in industry journals, is lower than that of other developing countries. In other fields, such as aerospace engineering or petroleum engineering, Brazil’s performance is outstanding. But the Cresce Brasil campaign makes no distinction in relation to the need to increase the number of engineering students: no field of engineering should be disregarded. “We urgently need to increase the number of students, and the engineering courses offered to students must be high quality ones. To educate high level professionals, it is necessary for the engineering schools to focus on science and technology and to interface with companies in search of innovation”, says Allen Habert, coordinator of the Technological Board of the National Federation of Engineers. However, the difficulty is not only related to the current state of affairs. The availability of good engineers is a parameter used to measure a country’s technological and innovative status. This doesn’t mean that other professionals such as physicists, chemists, mathematicians, technology professionals and technicians are less important. But engineers, with  entrepreneurial training, provide a good guideline in relation to the chances that a given society has to enjoy vigorous economic development. Engineers are key professionals in such fields as civil construction, energy, transportation, telecommunications, industry, water resources, logistics, sanitation and the environment, among others. “Engineers are the drivers of growth, because they transform nature in its macro and micro dimensions”, says Murilo Pinheiro, from Cresce Brasil.

International comparisons suggest that Brazil’s performance is not outstanding. South Korea has 20 engineers in each group of 100 university graduates. In Brazil, only 8 out of 100 university graduates are engineers. South Korea is an unusual reference, because the country was able to build up a vigorous innovation system in the last 30 years. In the seventies, Brazil and South Korea were on the same level in terms of patents registered in the United States. Nowadays, the number of South Korean patents registered in the United States is forty times higher than the number of Brazilian patents. Twenty thousand engineers graduate every year in Brazil, in comparison to 300 thousand in China, 200 thousand in India and 80 thousand in South Korea.

Miguel Boyayan Huge construction works and the real estate boom court the available civil engineersMiguel Boyayan

A project on the inclusion of issues linked to entrepreneurship in engineering courses was forwarded to the World Bank at the initiative of engineering education associations from Brazil, Chile and Argentina. When the final draft of the proposal was being prepared, the survey showed that in Brazil only 1.5 students out of every group of 100 inhabitants study engineering, in comparison to 3 in Argentina and 4.5 in Chile. The team members included João Sérgio Cordeiro, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and president of the Brazilian Association of Engineering Education/ Abenge. The curious fact is that Brazil has made a serious effort, albeit an unsuccessful one, to expand the number of engineers. In the last years, the number of engineering courses available in Brazil has doubled, to accommodate 300 thousand students. But no more than 30 thousand students graduate every year from the engineering schools. “It is possible that the number of graduates might increase slightly in the next few years, because engineering is a five-year course and part of the students who entered the new engineering schools have not graduated yet”, says Cordeiro. But there are still not enough students. “There is a number of factors that drives students away from engineering. One of these is the poor quality of elementary and high school education in terms of mathematics and physics, which are essential subjects for such a career. Engineering courses are usually very demanding”, says the president of Abenge. Estimates are that engineering knowledge doubles every 18 months. This speed helps explain why engineering courses are so demanding; however, this has also led European countries to discourage specialization and encourage a more general education, that is still able to keep up with the progress of knowledge.

Professor Agopyan mentions poor learning materials as one of the factors that discourage students from studying engineering. “Instead of teaching the logic and usefulness of an equation, professors simply instruct students to work on ten exercises. “Galileo’s physics explains the phenomenon of nature, but the narrow-minded way in which physics is taught does not enthuse anyone”, he states. The poor quality of some of the courses is an additional problem, especially in the case of courses taught at private institutions that might be losing students because these schools are unable to motivate the students. “The engineering schools need to adapt to the new needs of Brazilian development and some of the schools are already doing so”, says Allen Habert. “Until the nineties, highly innovative professors did not have much of a chance in the engineering schools, but now they are being listened to”, he states.

The drop in the number of engineering students is not an exclusively Brazilian phenomenon. In the United States, the number of graduate students in engineering schools dropped from 77 thousand in 1985 to a little over 60 thousand at the end of the 1990’s and these numbers only started going up again recently. In Japan, the percentage of students in the fields of engineering dropped from 21.1%, in 1970, to 17.8% in 2003. Although the number of engineering graduates in British universities went up in the period from 1995 to 2000, the number of graduate students in chemistry (-16%), physics and engineering (-7%) has dropped significantly. These countries, however, are able to make up for the lack of local talents by importing manpower from abroad, especially in the field of academic research.

Until the 1950’s, the nature of the engineering profession in Brazil was considered as being that of self-employment. In the next decades, engineering became a salaried profession, driven by the country’s economic and industrial development. Good engineers were courted by big construction companies and transformation industries; they earned good salaries and enjoyed a privileged status. The economic slump in the 1980’s and resulting lack of money for major construction projects led to a crisis in the field of engineering, characterized by the shortage of traditional jobs such as civil engineering. The symbol of this crisis was a fast food venture in São Paulo called O engenheiro que virou suco (The engineer who turned into juice), opened by an unemployed engineer who made a point of hanging his college diploma behind the cash register. According to data from the Interstate Federation of Engineers’ Trade Unions, the number of engineering graduates in the period from l995 to 2005 was 66% higher than the number of employees – this provides a good example of how things have changed in the last three years. Traditional jobs have become scarcer; engineers, however, have had no problems going into other professional fields, such as the financial markets. “The diversified academic background and the ability to make decisions in uncertain situations are qualities that are greatly appreciated in the financial market”, says Agopyan.

The way engineers work has also changed significantly and this results in additional challenges in having well-prepared professionals available to deal with development challenges. Up to the 1980’s, engineers would sit in front of their drawing boards working on designs and calculations; nowadays, engineers sit in front of computers, which have significantly expanded engineers’ production capacity. “Nowadays, it takes a computer one or two afternoons to solve the calculations of a design, which, in 1974, when I graduated from college, would take us two months to solve”, says Agopyan. Likewise, many engineers nowadays work as service providers and face the challenge of having to work in networks. “I know an engineer who works in São Paulo, but is part of a network that is developing a product for a European country; this product will be manufactured in one country and packaged in another”, says Agopyan. Engineers who graduated after the 1990’s learned how to work in this way. Some professionals, however, still feel out of place in this new environment. “They find it difficult to adapt and become redundant”, says the professor from the Polytechnic School. Re-training them has become a strategic issue, given the perspective of the shortage of engineers.