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7 Harsh Realities of Getting an Engineering Degree in the Philippines

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Graduating from an engineering program in the Philippines used to mean a whole lot. Bearing a professional title—the likes of “Doctor” and “Attorney”—the prefix Engineer used to hold so much pride for the family whose one or two members had such a word attached to their name. Mothers and grandmothers could not hold back the mention of their anak or apo to a friend they ran into at the public market, to whom they’d shamelessly plug into their conversation, “Oh, he’s an engineer now.”

Becoming a licensed engineer in the Philippines was once so meaningful and honorable. Meaningful because it was the licensed engineers who built the country’s roads and bridges, electrified remote regions that used to be in the dark and harnessed the archipelago’s waters, hidden gas reserves, and geothermal wells in order to run essentially everything.

And honorable because, well, wages in the Philippines especially for highly technical jobs, used to be so much better than they are now. Wages may be perceived as high and competitive for a very select few—but the vast majority of Filipino engineers aren’t getting the love back financially, despite the value they bring in.

Traditional Engineering Disciplines Are Undervalued

In the past couple of decades, the market’s priorities seem to have shifted. The tech industry has been given more credit than it has deserved—why would venture capitalists be overzealous in pouring billions into a Software-as-a-Service company but not so much in traditional engineering firms?

The mainstream’s infatuation with tech unicorns stems from the hope that in the rough (no matter how small the percentage may be) are a few diamonds, and in these diamonds could be the next Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, or Twitter. As a result, so much financial love has been poured out for software engineers—the orderlies that build the tech companies’ products, the maintenance men who make sure the services are running smoothly. But not so much love for typical Filipino engineers who need to finish a five-year course, pay thousands for school projects, and are required to pass a licensure examination to earn the right to add “Engineer” to their name.

Traditional Filipino engineers seem to feel like outcasts when going head-to-head with a software engineer in terms of salary. Among other things, earning a disappointing salary is just one of many hang-ups that the traditional engineering degree-holder is forced to come to terms with. Here are 7 harsh realities of getting an engineering degree in the Philippines.

1. High Likelihood of Underemployment

Having a college degree is still a competitive advantage, and all the more if your degree had something to do with engineering. But does this mean that you’re going to find a super decent job in your field once you get your license?

It’s far more likely that you’ll settle for underemployment in a different industry, just because it pays marginally better. Once I graduated and soon after got my license, it was shocking for me to discover the borderline minimum wage salaries of so-called “cadet” engineers that plants in the provinces were paying. Taking full advantage of the notion that fresh graduates are hungry for experience and would take whatever was on the table, businesses know that they can set the bar incredibly low.

As a fresh graduate with an engineering degree in the Philippines, you’re forced into a dilemma of choosing between underemployment with slightly higher pay or an entry-level engineering job paid an exploitative wage.

The people who run these exploitative businesses say that more experience will eventually give you a chance to earn more, and so you’re, therefore, “paying” them for the experience you would not have gotten elsewhere. Sounds like a paid internship to me.

Virtual assistants and call center agents get paid more—hence, underemployment would seem the wiser choice, especially when there’s rent to pay and mouths to feed.

2. Working for the Government Seems Like a Sweeter Deal

To achieve regular employment in the government at any agency in the Philippines is something any graduate covets. This includes fresh graduate engineers who will likely come to understand the reality of wages in the country. Wages in public sector jobs may be either lower or somewhat equal to wages in the private sector, but an open secret is that regular employment in the government entails receiving a hefty amount of compensation in the form of bonuses.

Not only does regular employment in a Philippine government agency promise bonuses in many forms—performance incentive, 13th- and 14th-month pay, anniversary bonus, and much more—it also promises security of tenure, a constitutional right that feels more like a “nice-to-have” when working in the private sector.

Considering these two things—better compensation and livelihood stability—you can see why any specialized engineering degree-holder in the Philippines would decide to abandon utilizing his engineering knowledge and aim to get a foot in the door of some government office instead.

3. Elitism Is a Real Thing

School elitism is not something that only happens in developed countries. The Philippines has been known for its imperialistic tendencies, not just in making its capital region the overwhelmingly favored economic hub, but also in concentrating the so-called “elite” schools in it, more commonly known locally as “Manila schools”—Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University, and University of Santo Tomas to name a few.

There might be a handful of elite schools situated in the provinces, such as University of San Carlos, Xavier University, and Ateneo de Davao, but like their capital region counterparts, they too seem to only admit students who either come from privileged backgrounds or are in the top 5-percent of academic performers.

Companies in the Philippines are well aware of the good schools and only seem to hire from these prestigious institutions. Some companies even go as far as secretly discriminating against graduates by offering a higher salary to graduates from elite schools as compared to graduates from state-run establishments.

Elitism is just another reality that the ordinary engineering graduate must prepare himself for. Those who come from impoverished backgrounds have to work exceedingly harder, in order to get an opportunity to enroll in a well-known school instead of spending time at some obscure college that hiring managers and recruiters likely won’t respect.

4. Fresh Graduates are Easier to Exploit

Private employers are often motivated to establish partnerships with universities not because they’re interested in helping the school out but because the school will likely be a very effective source of new hires. University relations matter to private employers simply because staffing is an essential part of running operations.

Fresh graduates are ideal for a number of reasons—lower labor cost, easier to train, natural subordinates, unlikely to stand up to management, etc. Not to mention that graduating students are easy to exploit for free labor. Unpaid interns who are yet to get their degree don’t have much to complain about, as they’re usually just happy to write the company’s name on their resume.

Engineering graduates are no exception to this harsh reality. Those who graduate with an engineering degree often already have useful knowledge and skills that can be utilized (exploited) by employers from the get-go.

5. Keep Learning or Get Left Behind

As an engineering graduate, you have to make the most out of your opportunity to learn and acquire new skills on the job. And it’s also on you to hone these skills to such a point that you can be regarded as a reliable resource when called upon. Some engineering graduates become too passive and fall prey to surrendering themselves to only doing what they’re “supposed to do,” and this tendency stunts a young engineer’s career growth.

A young engineer, wherever he or she may be, chooses between continuous learning or getting left behind. Learning can be internal, as is the case when you take every opportunity to take on work beyond your job description, such as offering help to other teams and projects or by actively observing how others work. And learning can also be external such as when you’re eager to sign up for trainings and seminars outside of work or through strategic networking.

The young Filipino engineering graduate must also accept the harsh reality that things move faster in the real world than what he might have been taught in school. Engineering professors can sometimes be too old school or stuck in traditional teaching methods that they fail to account for just how fast technology gets replaced and improved upon in the real world. This lack of awareness by college professors only widens the gap between academics and industry.

6. The Pay Makes You Yearn to Work Abroad

Even if the Filipino engineering graduate would happen to gain multiple years of experience and be able to hone their skills to the point of becoming a subject matter expert, more often than not, luck won’t be on their side in terms of compensation. Junior-to-mid level engineers, especially those in the traditional engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical), will come to realize the harsh reality that generous compensation hardly exists anywhere in the Philippines.

The Philippines is a labor outsourcing destination for a reason—it’s simply cheaper to hire workers here. Foreign companies didn’t drive their business here because of the bureaucracy or corruption in all levels of government. Even accounting for these two undesirable characteristics, the country still comes out as a great option for any foreign company to increase their bottom line. Local government officials and congressmen will surely get their cut, but even putting the latter on the balance sheet, it’s still lucrative for most companies.

Who bears the brunt? The actual workers. Lower operating costs mean lower labor costs. Those who graduate with an engineering degree and license will eventually realize at some point in their career that the wages just can’t keep up with what’s available overseas. It doesn’t matter that overseas employment usually means only as much as three years of guaranteed employment at a time—employment abroad, even at Southeast Asian neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia, is something almost every Filipino engineering graduate yearns for.

7. Finding Yourself Undereducated When Moving Abroad

Lastly, another harsh reality and perhaps the worst among all seven enumerated here is finding yourself undereducated when you do move abroad. There was a time (and I don’t know if this still applies today) when it was a running gag in Western countries that a medical degree in the Philippines wasn’t really worth much. If an Asian-looking doctor would mess up on a medical TV show, a rhetorical question would be asked, “Where did you get your degree, in the Philippines?”

Of course, it’s both insulting and unfortunate for any Filipino to realize how undervalued his or her degree is when moving abroad. For an engineering graduate, it’s worth noting that the Philippines isn’t a signatory to the Washington Accord, which means that his or her bachelor’s won’t be accepted in many countries, especially those in the West, as the necessary qualification in applying to become a professional engineer. This means that the burden of proving that one is qualified based on academic credentials lies heavily on the Filipino engineering graduate—needing to prove that one’s education is “equal” to the listed accredited programs.

In other words, an engineering degree earned in the Philippines doesn’t get much respect outside of the Philippines. As a result, the Filipino engineering graduate, despite having earned much work experience in the country, will usually need to take up more education abroad (which means he needs to spend for school again before getting the opportunity to earn money in his field of expertise).

Skills-Based Hiring Gaining Momentum

On a partially related note, skills-based hiring has gained momentum all over the globe. In every country, there’s always a noticeable gap between academics and industry, and this has caused employers to not even bother about filtering their pool of candidates based on whether they graduated college or finished a specific major. Instead, companies are pivoting to skills-based hiring.

Skills-based hiring is apparent in the tech industry, and it’s obvious in job boards where recruiters post job ads for experts in specific tools or programming languages. On the other extreme, some positions are advertised in a highly generic manner—positions like “quality analyst” or “compliance officer” make the job and its qualifications so malleable just so the company can source as many candidates as it can.

The rise of skills-based hiring could very well be another good reason not to take up an engineering degree in the first place—or, when you do decide to get and finish one, you should equip yourself with useful skills that make you “job-ready.”

An engineering degree, even when it’s from the Philippines, still has some worth. But the key is not to get too fixated on the degree and instead learn as much as you can from every opportunity. There’s free education even after graduation, but it’s only available to those who seek it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz