In a world growing increasingly complex and facing tougher challenges, the work that goes into solving these problems will not look like it has in the past.
The future is full of uncertainties, but one thing engineers can be sure about is their work in the years and decades to come will look different to how it has in years gone by. Here are the trends experts are predicting will change the face of the engineering profession.
- The future will be multidisciplinary
“The biggest change that I see coming is the amount of work or projects that will involve a multidisciplinary approach,” said Engineers Australia’s Advisor to the Chief Engineer Peter Briggs.
“In the 1960s, if you trained as a civil engineer, you would expect to be doing the same kinds of work for the rest of your career. You’d be doing new designs and you’d be adapting to different parameters and circumstances, but ultimately the variety of the work you were doing probably wouldn’t be as great as it will be for future engineers.”
That’s because the projects of the future will be conducted on a scale too great to be confined to one discipline. Briggs points to the transition to clean energy as an example.
“In the next couple of decades, we have to build seven times the amount of generation capacity that we have put historically into the grid, and we have to do it in a coordinated and planned fashion,” he said.
“It’s not just one particular discipline that does that; you’ve got all of them. You’ve got your mechanical and structural engineers who actually see to the installation of things. You’ve then got your electrical engineers and your power systems engineers integrating it into the grid. In that respect, I think that’s one of the biggest changes that we’ll see in the future — it’s the scale of projects being done.”
- Systems engineers will step into the spotlight
That multidisciplinary future means one particular talent will grow in importance: systems engineering. Increasingly complex processes that rely on engineers who can bring a broad variety of expertise together are going to require adept systems engineers who know how to design and manage these projects.
“There is actually going to be an increasing role for systems engineers who need to integrate the disciplines across these projects and make sure that they’re actually optimised and implemented in a way that achieves the most efficient outcome possible,” Briggs said.
“The fourth industrial revolution is here; the Internet of Things is here. So, in many respects, a lot of things are being networked and connected, and there’s a lot of data that’s being generated by projects, whereas previously we didn’t have that technology.”
- Creativity is something that cannot be automated
As engineers are well aware, robotics and artificial intelligence are rapidly expanding the scope of automation. Fortunately, engineers themselves are unlikely to be replaced by an algorithm.
“Any profession that requires original creation, innovation, design according to first principles from specific parameters — that sort of thing doesn’t lend itself too easily to automation,” Briggs said.
And that creativity allows engineers to flourish even in sectors outside their original area of professional expertise.
“Engineering is a skill set that actually equips you for the economy of the future, because it gives you a first-principles approach to problem solving, and that approach can be applied to so many things beyond your discipline,” Briggs said.
“Once you’ve been brought up to speed on the particular technology that you need to be applying or, say, the programming and software skills that you need, you are then able to apply your knowledge of engineering practise to a huge range of projects, activities, and roles. It really is equipping people for an increasingly and more rapidly changing future.”
- Boom sectors: manufacturing, infrastructure, space and clean energy
There are few areas of life in which engineering won’t matter, and engineers from almost all disciplines remain in high demand. However, there are some sectors in which engineering will play a particularly significant role.
“These large megaprojects that you’re seeing in clean energy and infrastructure generally, they are on a scale that’s … a much grander scale than previous engineering projects,” Briggs said. “There is a lot more shifting to thinking about how sustainability can be included in every project — because it should be. And, in fact, the UN Sustainable Development Goals won’t be achieved without engineering.”
Australia is also seeing the return of manufacturing and a continuing emphasis on infrastructure, particularly as a matter of importance in sovereign capability.
“This is an incredibly exciting time to be looking to join the profession because we’re seeing the return of manufacturing after a decade of decline since the automotive companies announced the end of local manufacturing,” Briggs said.
“When it comes to infrastructure, the pipeline of work that’s currently there and that’s projected to be there for the next 25 years — future engineers will have a secure time in their employment, and they will have a real breadth of opportunity available to them.”
Another arena in which Australia is making solid investments is space. From the creation of Australia’s Space Force and the Australian Space Agency to the multitude of start-ups operating in the area. The Australian Government’s Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019 – 2028 aims to “diversify the economy, triple the size of Australia’s space sector and grow an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030”.
- Micro-credentials will matter
Engineers have always needed to stay abreast of new information, and that will matter more than ever in the future.
“Engineering is a discipline that requires lifelong learning,” Briggs said. “Micro-credentials are going to be the future of upskilling for engineers.”
Engineering Education Australia has launched four professional skills micro-credentials and four technical skill micro-credentials, with more under development.
“Micro-credentials are a really good way of giving you a particular capability or a new skill set that you can add to your existing one to ensure that you stay current and at best practice,” Briggs said.
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This article originally appeared in create Digital.