James Dyson (an engineer who created a billion dollar company re-engineering the vacuum cleaner) recently wrote about the serious shortage of engineers in Canada, lamenting that we have abandoned our lineage of engineering innovation. While I would agree with him about our distinguished engineering past and decline in the business of producing engineers, I believe he makes an erroneous connection between the number of engineers a country produces and the output of those engineers.
I believe that the quality of an engineer (as opposed to the quantity) is a better predictor of future innovation. Silicon Valley has recently concocted the valuation metric "value per engineer" to justify the prices paid to acquire startup companies, making the argument that the value of the key personnel in these "acqui-hires" are rare and invaluable.
These acquisitions may not ever pay off in terms of traditional valuation metrics, but they help us to understand the value of engineers validated through their entrepreneurial product and mindset versus the run-of-the-mill engineer. If a company like Facebook, which has its pick of the cream of the crop of engineers worldwide cannot find the engineers they need to hire, how can a country wake up one day and decide to train them?
Canada does not produce enough quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates. This puts our country in the precarious position of potentially falling behind in the increasingly knowledge-based global economy, as demonstrated in recent outsourcing scandals.
Ignoring the potential role an effective immigration policy can play in closing the gap (for example, how many of the best engineers in the U.S. are immigrants or the direct decedents of immigrants?), it is clear Canada has to become more competitive in STEM-based innovation. That being said, it is more likely that creating an ecosystem linking basic research with entrepreneurship, business and investment will likely produce better results than just adding another engineering school in Canada (or increasing enrollment at existing schools -- usually a recipe for dilution).
The Technion in Israel is a real-life validation of the focus on taking the brightest engineers and exposing them to multi-disciplinary learning to improve the innovation of a country to the point the country is known as the "Start-up Nation."
Dyson's own backstory as a successful entrepreneur serves as validation of my thesis, with his tremendous success coming with the backdrop of Britain's shortage of innovative champions (even-though they produce many more engineers per capital than Canada). Countries like Canada and Britain need to figure out how to train more engineers like him and forget about chasing numbers.