The engineering shortage—the bigger picture

05 January 2009

A few decades ago, people feared automation. They felt it was a threat to working people. Labour unions fought against it, and the media chimed in with their dire predictions. But today, we have a different problem. The work force is shrinking.

not enough ehildren
not enough ehildren

And so the hope is, automation can fill the gap. In fact, many manufacturing facilities could not operate today without automation. They would have to shut down without it.

But, automation alone will not solve the problem. It will not be enough to fill the work force gap that is coming in Europe. In fact no amount of extra effort, or training, or government incentives, is going to resolve the human resources problem the next generation will have.

Forget about oil and gas shortages, or water shortages, or climate change, or whatever social problem you think is prevailing on us.

The biggest coming problem is human resources.

It surprises me how few see this; perhaps because it’s over the time horizon, out of immediate sight, in the 20-30 year time frame.

We, and many others, have already noticed the shortage in engineering skills is beginning to be a real problem.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening today, to put you in the picture. This took place in the U.S.A., but it could happen anywhere.

Dr. Maurice Wilkins, who works for Yokogawa Electric in Dallas, told us about an American chemical plant that recently went through a planned shut down for maintenance.

Since plants are becoming more efficient, their operating cycles are getting longer. Where they used to be two or three years, they’re now extending up to seven years. So in this particular chemical plant, the operators working at the end of a long cycle found themselves in a peculiar situation—they had never been through a plant shut down! They did not know how to handle the unfamiliar situation.

To resolve the problem, management had to coax some retired operators to come back and show them how to do it.


The next time you hear someone talking about an engineering shortage, tell them it is part of a much larger problem that will greet most of the industrialised countries of the world in the next 30 years.

What is this problem? Our population is irreversibly shrinking.

Europe’s average birthrate of 1.5 child per female is well below what is needed for one-to-one replacement. According to Herbert Meyer, unless this changes, in 30 years from now there will be 70 to 80 million fewer Europeans than there are today. That’s the present-day population of Germany.

Now maybe your first thoughts are, well, “that might not be so bad.”

Less traffic, less demand for housing, fewer people in hospitals, less crime. With lower demand, maybe even prices will go down. We’ll all have a better standard of living in this less-crowded Europe.

Alas, by mid-century this shrinkage will have a negative impact on the economy, not a positive one.

Think about it some more. As the birth rate drops below replacement, the population gets older. There are fewer people working to support the retired people. This increases the burden on the working population, and more of them either postpone or abandon the idea of having a family, and the situation gets worse.

Nobody has any idea about how to run an economy with these demographics, says Mr. Herbert.

‘Western civilisations seems to have forgotten what every primitive society understands: you need kids to have a healthy society,’ he says.

‘Children are huge consumers. Then they grow up to become taxpayers. That’s how a society works, but the post-modern secular state seems to have forgotten that.

If U.S. birth rates of the past 20 or 30 years had been the same as post World War II, there would be no [government pension] or [health care] problems.’

What will Europe do? Import 70 million Asians or Africans to keep the economy at the same level it is today?

Michael Babb, editor, Control Engineering Europe

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