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What’s Changing Engineering and How Practitioners are Staying Up-to-Date

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Digital disruption, a focus on sustainability in construction, and the growing recognition of the importance of emotional intelligence are among the trends shaking up the engineering profession, according to research by recruitment firm Hays Engineering.

Hays has recently released a report, The Modern Engineer, based on a survey of 340 engineers and 13 in-depth interviews with engineering leaders in. The report highlighted how the game is changing and what qualities and skills emerging engineers will need in order to succeed.

According to Adam Shapley, Senior Regional Director of Hays Engineering, major findings of the survey were that engineers wanting to be effective in their roles need to have a solid grasp of environmentally sustainable design and lifecycle assessment. They also need to be adept with the latest technology including GPS positioning, survey equipment, drones, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality.

Engineers wanting to be effective in their roles need to have a solid grasp of environmentally sustainable design and lifecycle assessment,. 

While new technology is playing an increasing role, those entering the profession still need a strong technical foundation and skill in mathematics, Shapley says.

Those growing in their careers need to ensure they have a high level of emotional intelligence and social skills in order to succeed.

Most of all, engineers need to be problem-solvers and should engage in continual learning to stay up-to-date. “I believe that to be successful, today’s engineer must demonstrate an appetite and aptitude to learn quickly and ask questions to keep their knowledge current,” Shapley says.

In the introduction, CEO of Consult Australia, Megan Motto claims, “automation and artificial intelligence threaten to make many of the traditional and base level skills of engineers redundant (at least to a degree).”

She says both engineers and employers need to consider “areas for personal and organisational development to ensure they have the right skills to remain relevant in the future.”

The survey of Australian and New Zealand-based engineers found that 88 per cent believe the government is mostly or completely responsible for achieving a sustainable society. However, 85 per cent also consider themselves as having a role to play. Clients also have a role, according to 84 per cent of respondents, followed by architects (77 per cent) and builders/contractors (66 per cent).

Almost all – 92 per cent – want to take more ownership of the building process. 

Almost all – 92 per cent – want to take more ownership of the building process.

3D-modelling skills were highlighted as being very important, with many believing 2D skills will lose their relevance.

However, the majority are not using the latest technologies. Only one in three  reported using GPS positioning, 21 per cent using digital survey equipment, ten per cent  using drones, and only nine per cent either AR or VR tools.

One of the interviewees in the report, ACT Director of global firm WSP Dan Cunningham, says his company is using the new toolkit. “Our business is using VR technology to show our clients an enhanced visualisation of their project — actually letting them experience what their project will look like,” Cunningham tells Hays.

“Tablets where you can mark-up stuff in the field are definitely a valuable technology. I think almost gone are the days of taking a piece of paper and red pen and scribbling stuff up.

“We have done 3D-printing in some areas for some models, but it’s not a key part of what we do. GPS positioning and GPS asset registers is an important part of some parts of our business, especially the environmental part of our business. Drones are common now for aerial surveys, and they’re a great tool.”

Other interviewees emphasised how central the concept of sustainability has become to how they approach projects, including Phil Gardiner, Managing Director of Irwinconsult.

Gardiner says that population growth is one of the trends that will have the most impact on the engineering industry now and in future. He links this to the need to pursue sustainability, which he claims is “one of the issues of our generation alongside affordable housing. Number one is climate change and then after that it’s about running out of resources one day.”

Population growth is one of the trends that will have the most impact on the engineering industry now and in future. 

He says the Code of Ethics of the industry’s professional body, Engineers Australia, requires members to be socially responsible and focus on environmentally sustainable design.

In terms of buildings, he believes building materials, more efficient thermal design, better glazing and shading, and improved building sealing are areas of focus that will progress sustainability.

“We need to be mindful of carbon intensive materials whether that be concrete, steel, glass, aluminium and everything else,” he says. “Apart from timber, I don’t see a lot that’s going to replace those things yet, it’s about the way you use them and minimising use. There certainly will be better cements and concretes around in the future. ”

The Hays interviewers asked many of the participants for a response to a statement by Professor Robert Stone, Director of Human Interface Technologies at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who says engineering courses should provide VR, AR and mixed reality (MR) modules and extend basic knowledge of 3D CAD skills.

Manager of ACT and Southern NSW at GHD Australia, Jo Metcalfe, is one who agrees. She says that educational institutions developing modules that integrate all these capabilities with data analytics/ VR skills will have a distinct advantage.

“Whether it’s as communication devices or productivity tools that solve more complex problems with evidence-based data, experience with these technologies for graduates is going to be important,” she says.

Metcalfe says that environmentally sustainable design and lifecycle assessments are now “business as usual”. 

Metcalfe says that environmentally sustainable design and lifecycle assessments are now “business as usual”. The new emerging skills and knowledge bases for the profession are writing algorithms and software, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, VR and AR.

“These four skills will need to be developed by the tertiary institutions and the organisations that are employing graduates,” Metcalfe says.

Jobsite spoke with Engineers Australia National program Manager, Tertiary, Dr David Pointing, for his take on the report’s findings. His role is to work with all the universities teaching engineering and support them in connecting students with the profession.

To have “world-class engineers” we need the type of education that produces them, Pointing says.

While digital literacy is part of the equation, he says that there is also a need for more traditional communication skills. For example, some graduates that are adept at text messaging might find it challenging to write a formal cover letter.

VR and AI are growing in importance, and the key is for graduates to be able to apply engineering knowledge in these types of modern applications.

“As engineers, we’ve never been able to operate in isolation,” Pointing says. “There is always a broader context of safety and sustainability in terms of the community.”

Emerging technologies are changing many aspects of practice, as they are resulting in the development of more complex systems in society, he says. Take intelligent vehicles, smart buildings and smart lights, for example. They all mean each sub-system in infrastructure or a building becomes more complex.

Some specific areas of practice like electrical engineering are also becoming more complex.

Sustainable energy technology implementation wasn’t even a thing just twenty years ago. 

There is a lot of rapid development in the field. His own specific field, sustainable energy technology implementation wasn’t even a thing just twenty years ago.

He says in the immediate future we will see new areas of practice emerge, such as the rise of AV engineers. This field will include not only the technology itself, perhaps, but also ensuring AVs fit into aspects, such as the safety of school crossings. There is also the question of how they will fit in with the wider energy system.

“There is a need for us to have a [holistic] type of thinking,” Pointing says. “As engineers we have always needed to think about broader aspects, but in the past we were able to get away with linear thinking sometimes.”

He gives the example of the lead that used to be in standard petrol. Chemists knew it was bad, but automotive engineers knew it was good for engines. The knowledge the chemists had did not influence the decision made to use lead, resulting in a major public health issue.

Overall, engineers are now more compelled to be thinking about big picture elements.

In terms of students, the mission is to ensure they are “inherently capable of seeing their role as an engineer in society.”

“The world desperately needs amazing engineers to deal with challenges such as climate change,” Pointing says.

For practising engineers, continuing professional development (CPD) should be a “basic professional practice.” The EA Code of Ethics, which all members are committed to, requires engineers to be maintaining the competency and currency of their knowledge. That means engaging in CPD.

The Institute of Chartered Engineers, another professional body for the industry, requires members to undertake 50 hours of CPD a year, whichs is audited.

CPD can include mentoring younger members of the profession and supporting them in understanding how engineers can be ethical and support society.

For practising engineers, continuing professional development (CPD) should be a “basic professional practice.” 

Pointing says the leaders of engineering education, from the Deans down to the lecturers, are focused on delivering an education for engineers that is across modern technologies as well as the fundamentals. Given the pace of change and emergence of new technologies, keeping the curriculum current is something that keeps them awake at night, he says.

“There is a strong commitment to the continuing evolution of how we train our young engineers to be ethical and put their knowledge into practice in the modern world, and in the future world to come.”

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