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Will we need engineers? Time for uncomfortable truths

Alex Gilbert

Take a quick glance around your office and think about what you actually spend your time doing all day.

Then compare it with your working life when you first left school, college or university. Pretty different today, isn’t it.

Digitisation and the connected environment have remapped our working lives and accelerated the delivery of new tools, processes and priorities.

The reality, of course, is that for all the change, the infrastructure sector has been among the slowest to embrace new technology and is still lagging behind.

Just as infrastructure investment is being made a greater economic priority, our productivity compared with other industries has fallen further back.

And so, as we strive to meet growing demand, we face another potentially debilitating skills shortage – one that, without rapid and decisive action, could apply a catastrophic brake on the economy.

We don’t really understand

But today’s skills challenge is far more profound and complex than those before. The solution requires us to totally rethink the way we approach the design, construction and management of our built assets.

Fundamentally, do we truly understand the problem we face? While many are trying to find a solution, to date no one has really pinned down the skills we need for the future.

As an industry, we have critical missing data around what industry jobs will look like in future, who will we be employing and what skills we want people to have.

Given the growth of automation and artificial intelligence, will we really need engineers in the future?

“The future will require a workforce capable of exploiting the AI, automation, robotic and remote sensor technology as it enters the industry mainstream”

We already have the Rapid Engineering Model that is automating smart motorway design for Highways England. Autonomous drones and video-based sensor technology are now in mainstream operation across road and rail networks, gathering and assessing more information than engineers ever could. Data analytics driven by AI can now make risk assessment decisions for critical assets.

This is just the start. This future of automation and robotics means  we need to adopt a new approach, not least as clients demand new customer-focused outcomes and greater certainty over delivery time and costs.

Tech-savvy talent

We need to be more honest as an industry about the skills the next generation of jobs will require. This means explaining the reality that the traditional engineering and technician roles will change.

The future will require a workforce capable of exploiting the AI, automation, robotic and remote sensor technology as it enters the industry mainstream.

As a sector we are not changing fast enough. We have the bizarre situation where students are leaving college more tech-savvy than the current industry can accommodate. That can’t be right.

“We don’t want a theoretical workforce incapable of translating its ideas into reality; we want a range of new skills”

There is, in effect, a whole generation missing from the industry as the talent fails to find a home in infrastructure. This has to change.

We need to be more aligned with academia to ensure the future workplace is ready for the talent modern university courses are delivering.

Finding the strategic thinkers

At Amey, our strategic consultancy business is tackling the challenge of using data and new technology to solve our clients’ infrastructure problems. Five years ago that team didn’t exist.

But this is an issue that transcends individual companies. We need to turn a career creating and managing infrastructure into a compelling alternative to being a banker, a lawyer or even a celebrity. If we don’t, we face a rapidly diminishing pool of talent.

We will always need a core of practical and capable engineering professionals who can define, design and solve. After all, we don’t want a theoretical workforce incapable of translating its ideas into reality; we want a range of new skills available in parallel.

In future, traditional engineering talents will have to be enhanced by new approaches. That means more strategic thinkers – more people who understand what the clients’ problems are and can explain the solutions available.

So take a look around you: are you and your organisation capable of leading that change?

Alex Gilbert is managing director of Amey Consulting 

Readers' comments (2)

  • “people who understand what the clients’ problems are and can explain the solutions available.”

    As a Chartered Engineer, this is EXACTLY what I do on a daily basis.

    An Engineer who can ONLY do ‘numbers’ and NOT EXPLAIN WHAT THEY MEAN IN A LANGUAGE OTHERS UNDERSTAND IS NOT AN ENGINEER.

    As my mentor explained to me, decades ago, ‘You can be Einstein, but if you cannot explain it to others so they can understand it’s all for nought!’ It’s about getting out of my head and into yours, ditto it’s understanding clients needs and offering a SOLUTION, as much as making safe AND efficient!

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  • It is to be welcomed that the construction industry has begun to embrace new technologies but given the lamentable productivity levels, continuing accident rates and poor quality management, there is an urgent need to increase the integration of such new technologies such as AI, augmented reality, robotics and 3D printing. One key development will be data trusts that can allow artificial intelligence agents to be created to identify improvements. The first in the industry is www.constructionai.org.

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