In our third Future of Work post, we’re considering what’s over the horizon for the engineering sector.
The future of engineering is overshadowed by one issue: a talent shortage of epic proportions. Around the world, many millions more engineers are needed to respond to the great challenges of our age, from energy to clean water, cyber security to food security.
It will take a rapid and wholesale shift in the traditionally slow-turning engineering mindset to deliver the workforce the world needs. This shift will come from all quarters, as employers rethink who they target and how, and engineers broaden their outlook and expand their toolkit.
Engineering is almost at the bottom of the table of professions under threat from the rise of the robots. The reliance on quintessentially human factors (complex problem-solving, originating new ideas etc.) makes it near-impossible for roles in engineering to be automated any time soon.
Far more likely is the prospect of engineers continuing to act as benign architects of automated labour. Historically, automation of drudge work has ushered in larger numbers of safe and rewarding jobs, leading to widespread increases in income and quality of life. With the correct structural and policy support from governments, educators and business, this trend can continue into the future, with engineers leading the way.
The rise of contract work in engineering is an unusually interesting case, being driven by workers either end of their career.
Millennials are starting their path with a job-hopping mindset, due to a) the insecurity of the job market they’ve entered and b) their own desire to keep pace with technological change. Meanwhile, many baby boomers approaching retirement are prolonging their career (and remaining valuable assets to their employers) through part-time contract work.
With both trends set to continue, smart employers will put contractors at the heart of their workforce planning strategies. Worker demands are the critical factor. If engineers want and expect to work more flexibly and less loyally, only those employers who meet their needs will be able to compete in one of the world’s fiercest talent markets.
Until now, engineering education has tended to turn out lone wolves – self-sufficient professionals well versed in theoretical concepts and focused on the task at hand. Tomorrow’s engineers will need to go much further.
Solving the world’s great challenges will require big-system thinking and cross-border collaboration. It will take, in the purest meaning of the word, a worldview. This can only be achieved by embedding connectivity into daily working practices.
Embracing digital communication tools will also help engineering to solve its own great challenge of renewing and diversifying its workforce. These methods will enable more flexible and remote working: both vital components in attracting younger candidates, specifically younger women, to the profession.
The globalisation of engineering broadly follows the trend of industrialisation and urbanisation. Emerging economies invest in developing the engineering workforce needed to build infrastructure. Hence China is a fully mature engineering economy, with the likes of India and Vietnam touted as new talent hotspots.
Africa is the significant exception to this rule. Economic growth, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will continue to be stunted until the region can overcome its “crippling deficit of engineering skills”.
A virtual global engineering community will play its part in advancing skills in the region, but this alone will not be enough. Tomorrow’s talent must be prepared to become peripatetic “passport engineers”, travelling regularly to other countries to share expertise and dig directly into projects.
Another way to remedy the dearth of engineers in Africa will be to open more doors to women. In emerging economies such as Myanmar, Honduras and Tunisia, encouragingly high proportions of women are studying engineering. Africa must follow suit to increase prosperity around the continent.
Continuity of skills
Engineering’s worldwide talent shortage has reached critical mass. It has been talked about enough, now action is taking place to replenish the parched global talent pool.
Employers are at last recognising the onus on them to get involved in early-years STEM education. Likewise the industry is moving beyond lip service when it comes to workforce diversity. There is too much at stake for these trends not to accelerate in years to come.
As the engineering workforce diversifies, so will the engineering skillset. In future, engineers will be humanists as well as technologists, with far more commercial awareness than their predecessors. The next generation will be multi-faceted (and highly-lauded) Renaissance Engineers.
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The insights in this post were informed by three key sources:
1. Building a future for engineering in The Times Higher Education
2. Tomorrow’s Engineering Workforce by Korn Ferry
3. The Trends & Opportunities Driving the Contract Engineering Workforce by 180 Recruiting