Sir James Dyson, who’s been called the Steve Jobs of home appliances, famously spent five years building 5,127 prototypes in the carriage house on his farm before inventing the bag-less vacuum cleaner. Today, he is literally a household name, and has more than 1,500 scientists and engineers working for him around the world, concentrated in the U.K., Malaysia and Singapore. “To compete globally, you need to stay ahead, and companies are recruiting,” the British inventor tells Maclean’s; his own has doubled the number of engineers at its British headquarters over the past two years, and will recruit another 100 in the U.K. by the end of 2013.

As India, China and other emerging economies churn out engineers, countries including Canada and the U.K. are experiencing a shortage—one that could become “enormous,” he warns. “Other nations have realized the need for engineers,” Dyson says. “We still haven’t.”

The problem will likely become more acute in coming years. About 95,000 engineers will retire by 2020, predicts a recent report from Engineers Canada, the body that represents the profession’s provincial and territorial regulators. It also found that the skills shortage in Western Canada, driven by demands of the oil and gas sector, among other industries, is expected to grow. And Canada still isn’t doing enough to promote education in four key disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM—meaning we could lag further behind. “Engineers play a critical role in building a strong economy and society,” says University of Calgary president and engineer Elizabeth Cannon. “If we are really going to have an innovative culture and economy, it’s imperative that we attract more.”

On paper, it looks as if Canada does have enough: The number of jobs and the number of engineers aren’t vastly different. “The shortages occur when you look at things regionally and are discipline-specific,” says Samantha Colasante, manager of research and diversity at Engineers Canada. Because of resource and infrastructure projects, B.C. and Alberta will have the tightest labour markets over the coming decade, the report found. Alberta’s shortage is expected to be especially severe in disciplines such as civil, geological and petroleum engineering, rather than chemical or materials engineering, for example. Moreover, skill shortages will be driven largely by a coming retirement wave—and a younger generation of engineers may lack the experience to replace seasoned retirees.

At the same time, many foreign-born engineers are now choosing to return to their home countries. “The main reason is the economy,” says Tarlochan Sidhu, dean of the faculty of engineering and applied science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who moved here from India in 1983. “I had two Ph.D. students who graduated two years ago—very bright students. Both went back to India and started their own companies. We’re seeing more of that.” Immigrants will be important to fill our engineering employment needs in the future, as they are now: In 2011, notes a recent Statistics Canada report, immigrant adults aged 25 to 64 represented just under one-quarter of our adult population, but held about half of all STEM degrees.

A 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada graded the country on the percentage of science, math, computer science and engineering grads, and gave us a “C”—12th out of 16 comparable countries—noting that, in 2010, our proportion of graduates in these fields was 21 per cent, the third year it showed a decline. In Finland, by comparison, 32 per cent of all university graduates were from the fields of science, math, computer science and engineering; 18 per cent were engineers.

According to a study cited in a 2012 report produced for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), from 2004 to 2007, eight to nine per cent of all newly granted university degrees in Canada were in engineering-related fields; in China, that number jumped from 30 per cent in 2004 to 37 per cent in 2007. Canadian students “understand the importance of science and technology to Canada’s future,” it says, but “most are not inclined to pursue careers in those fields.”

There are all sorts of reasons why STEM education in Canada, and engineering in particular, has lagged; for one thing, engineering isn’t a subject that’s studied in high school, so when picking a career path, many young Canadians aren’t overly familiar with it. “There’s not a proper understanding of what engineers do and how they contribute to society,” Sidhu says.

In some developing countries, “there’s a cultural background of science and engineering,” says Bonnie Schmidt, president of the outreach group Let’s Talk Science, and a co-author of the CCCE report. “It’s rejoiced, celebrated—not necessarily the way we talk about it here.”

Things are starting to change. Another study, for Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council (an 18-member panel created by the Conservatives in 2007), shows improvement in some respects. From 2006-10, there was a 32 per cent increase in the overall number of science degrees granted, it says, with a seven per cent increase in the number of engineering degrees.

Universities, meanwhile, are tailoring their engineering programs to attract a new kind of student. The recent overhaul of York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, a $250-million investment, is “perhaps the most ambitious project in Canadian academia at the moment,” says founding dean Janusz Kozinski. Linked with York’s Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School, the program aims to train what it calls “renaissance engineers,” who have a multidisciplinary approach and, according to Kozinski, “a social conscience and a sense of global citizenship.” Students “are exposed to entrepreneurial education and legal education from the outset,” he says, and can earn a dual degree if they choose.

The University of Calgary, too, is expanding its Schulich School of Engineering and its internship program, which now includes 60 per cent of its third-year students. Calgary has been especially active in recruiting more women into engineering, where they’re still sorely under-represented. In 2001, Cannon created Cybermentor, which links young female students to established professionals in the field. “We’ve had up to 3,000 young women come through this program in over 70 communities across Alberta,” she says.

Recognizing the need for engineers, Dyson has also launched various initiatives to draw more young people to STEM subjects. In 2011, for example, the James Dyson Foundation partnered with Vancouver’s Science World to create its Engineering Lab, full of interactive exhibits that teach kids about the field.

In the long term, some see engineering emerging as one of the more sought-after degrees. Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who has studied basement inventors (those who create and modify consumer products, often in their spare time)points to the so-called maker movement, spurred by the availability of new tools such as the 3D printer. “In places like Chicago and Detroit, there are maker labs springing up with 3D printers, laser cutters” and other do-it-yourself equipment, von Hippel says.

The Mini Maker Faire movement is expanding across Canada, with events in six cities from Vancouver to Montreal. And in west-end Toronto, Maker Kids has run a non-profit workshop space for about four years: 3D printing is the coming attraction among all the inventing, tinkering and hacking activities at these venues.

“If you give kids access, it’s so easy to use,” says von Hippel. “That will get people excited about engineering. If they can just sketch something up and press ‘print,’ they’ll say engineering is pretty cool.”

Maclean's September 16, 2013