Why is engineering not attractive to future builders?

Future-proofing the engineering industry will not only require the development of new skills and capabilities but also greater collaboration between students, academic institutes and industry, as well as improving diversity, says Dr Collette Burke, Victoria’s first Chief Engineer.

Dr Collette Burke, Chief Engineer of Victoria

Albert Einstein once said, “I was originally supposed to become an engineer but the thought of having to expend my creative energy on things that make practical everyday life even more refined, with a loathsome capital gain as the goal, was unbearable to me.”

Despite the feats of engineering marvels that have been created, engineers remain the quiet technical achievers of the world to date. Whilst the physical creations are often remembered — such as the buildings, roads, bridges, submarines, railways and products — little is known about the great minds behind these creations that inspire the next generation of future engineers.

Engineers are in fact visionaries that dream and create tangible, innovative structures to serve mankind.
In this world of exponential technological change, it is important to value the people who have the ability to turn ideas into reality, and to have leaders invested in shaping the future of a sustainable world through use of visionary engineering skills.

In the current climate, engineers need to step up and take the power to lead our society to adopt technology and innovation, hence the need for greater representation at every level.

To date, engineers have typically been involved in areas surrounding research and design, manufacturing and product
development, design, construction, operations of assets and infrastructure, and the development of physical and digital systems.

Naturally, the engineering industry is filled with skilled technical people, however these specialised technical skills are not necessarily being transferred to upcoming engineers to provide the inspiration they need. Given this, and the aging engineering workforce, the new generation of engineers are becoming more generalist. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Only time will tell.

The engineering profession is also seeing increasing vacancies within Australia, up to 25 per cent in 2017, and 29 per cent in Victoria alone (ABS 2018 statistics). The most alarming shortage of engineers can be seen in the public sector, where employment of engineers has decreased significantly over the past 30 years, from approximately 100,000 down to a mere 20,000.

How do we deliver unprecedented levels of infrastructure and innovation with so few engineering minds? This number is indicative of how vital it is for greater representation of engineers across all sectors and in particular the government sector.

It is essential for the growth of our country and to integrate the ever-growing technological, social and physical worlds.

Integrating new technologies and sustainability targets
As is clear in our evolving society, the future is an exciting prospect if we are given the tools to properly develop and advance as a society.

Engineers have the potential to become holistic visionary designers of the environment in which we live, however
the key to this is shifting away from seeing projects in isolation to systems-based thinking, which is currently difficult given the aging workforce who have worked differently.

An example of this is the underutilisation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) within Australia, where we have been slow to adopt the technology which is reshaping the development, construction and management of assets.

The introduction of BIM has provided an opportunity to move away from the traditional methods and to allow the leveraging of digital assets for a more efficient analysis of optimisation of project lifecycles, particularly in a visual way.

As spatial and construction information modelling technologies begin to converge, there is a significant opportunity for
Australia, through use of data policies, to promote integrated adoption of this manner of working across the entire construction sectors.

It is clear BIM is capable of providing all manner of key sector benefits, from improved project quality to labour market
improvements, and so it is integral that the engineers working currently and in the future are equipped with the tools and resources to use these technological advancements in their future work.

BIM capabilities will make the communication of complex issues on projects easier for all stakeholders involved in the project.

This rethinking of asset development and management should also be combined with the understanding of sustainability principles and processes.

The increased focus on sustainable construction and asset management is critical, given the rapid global urbanisation and the call to reduce global carbon emissions, and is creating enormous challenges requiring differing
solutions and a ‘motivation’ to want to change our world for a sustainable future.

As with any industry, the skill requirements for workers is consistently evolving. Engineers will need to acquire and utilise knowledge surrounding social, economic and environmental areas in order to see how their designs will interact and influence the world in which we live.

Due to continued transition into a digital economy, there is need for greater technological skills for
upcoming engineers.

There will also be a requirement for increased soft skills in engineering degrees to prepare students and give them the skills to succeed in the real world. Agility is also a key factor influencing how people progress through their chosen industry and how they develop skills.

I can personally attest to this, having worked in a variety of different areas and on numerous projects, ranging from civil engineering, the creation of engineering consultancy firms both locally and overseas, and working with government bodies on major projects.

It is important that engineers are given the skills to work within all areas in the public and private sector and ensure we can permeate skills to new sectors in order to aid not only our individual development, but that of the future world.

Moving towards a more inclusive workforce
On top of the crucial technical skills, future engineers will also need better people skills, in terms of stakeholder management and internal teams and companies, to give them greater power to influence and help the creation of our technological society.

Given the diminishing technical expertise within the public sector, leadership skills should also be developed for engineers, in order to help ensure the public sector has well informed and knowledgeable technical expertise to develop our future society.

Acknowledging the future skills required in engineers, it is important to look into and discuss the teaching and promotion of engineering degrees at universities.

Currently, there is an overarching perception that all engineers need to be extremely skilled at maths and physics, which could be pushing away potential future engineers. We also see a significant under representation
of young females joining and remaining in the profession.

While some engineering disciplines do require high level maths skills, the broader aspects of engineering should be promoted to attract a wider range of skills and interests. Engineering should be promoted as the creative and visionary profession that it is, where world’s best practice in innovation can be achieved.

Working with the engineering profession to ensure that there is appropriate course content and skills development for our young engineers, and strengthening the relationship between students, academic institutes and industry will go a long way to ensuring we can nurture engineers of the future that are job ready upon completion of studies.

We also need to strive for greater diversity in the profession – in respect to diversity in gender, culture, age, disability and experience. Non-homogenous teams increase diversity of thought, greater creative problem solving and productivity that leads to monumentally greater outcomes.

Focusing on building synergies in teams for the enhancement of communication skills and promoting lifelong learning and development will lead to optimal outcomes for projects within the industry and for future developments. In general, everyone wants a cross-section in our workplace which is more aligned to the cross-section in society.

Promotion of the benefits and attributes of being an engineer will highlight that engineering is an outstanding profession and requires well-rounded technical skills as well as outstanding personal qualities.

While it is clear that there is considerable work to be done to ensure the readiness of engineers for the future of our world and the industry itself, there are positive signs to be taken from the acknowledgement of such issues by key personnel within the industry.

A combined effort is needed to progress the engineering profession and its workforce, which will in turn garner only
positive outcomes for society.

by Dr Collette Burke, Chief Engineer of Victoria

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