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Engineers Need Intangible Soft Skills to Stand Out and Succeed

The past was a simpler time.

Has there ever been a truer sentiment with regard to just about every aspect of modern life? In the workplace, in particular, we’ve already seen the simple career formula become obsolete: A bachelor’s degree plus 30 years on the job used to equal a guaranteed pension and retirement bliss. Today, if a young person would even want to spend his or her entire career in one place, there’s certainly no guarantee an employer would want that let alone subsidize retirement.

In the engineering field, it’s no different, despite a history in which Baby Boomers were able to forge long, stable careers in the big-four engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, industrial, and electrical). Engineering opportunity, of course, is still there. In fact, over the next decade, demand for engineers is expected to grow by 11 percent, with the National Association of Colleges and Employers reporting that engineering majors currently rank second in the most in-demand skill sets.

But make no mistake; this is not the your father’s engineering environment where a seemingly simple, straightforward set of technical skills was all it took to be successful. Along with the current growing demand for engineers comes a very different set of expectations from employers.

How Young Engineers Will Mold Our Future

The Future of Engineering

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. It ushered in new political, military, technological and scientific developments. Today, the world is heavily reliant on a growing fleet of communication, navigation and remote sensing satellites; from smart phone users to jet liners navigating across the globe. This stands as one amongst a myriad of engineering accomplishments that have stood as a key force in the improvement of the world’s economic well-being, health and quality of life.

The pace of technological innovations is constantly shifting rapidly as the population of individuals who interact with these innovations grows more diverse and complex. The presence of technology has led to an intense global interconnection. New industries and disciplines such as nanotechnology and medical engineering have interjected traditional disciplinary fundamentals as well as the application of more recent engineering developments especially information and communication technologies. Meanwhile new products and services that would be impossible without the knowledge and skills of engineers – for instance the internet and mobile telephones – have become a necessity in our everyday life.

With the prospect of the exciting new developments expected to come from such fields as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and high-performance computing, engineering is presented with an undeniable platform to define itself as a career for the most influential and valuable in society.

Technology is the centerfold of most activities conducted in society today. It is incumbent that engineers are able to play a role in shaping the ultimate use of this technology as well as devise the government processes that will control, regulate and encourage its use. The future engineer must be able to assume a leadership position to make positive influences towards public policies globally. This will also affect the general opinion and attitude of the public towards this profession, placing engineering as a desirable and significant career to pursue.

The opportunities offered by an engineering education are multifold, and this is not fully realized by young people, their parents, counselors, mentors, and the public at large. The current education programs available to the future engineer have failed to keep up with the increasing dynamism of the industry. Companies are in search for an engineer who possesses not only the technical expertise but communication skills and inter cultural capabilities as well. Young engineers must learn how to be creative, inventive as well as expose themselves to non-engineering interdisciplinary efforts such as business to accommodate the shifting demands of this field.

The current structure and content of most engineering courses offered in universities has not been adapted to cater for these demands. Furthermore, the output of new, high caliber engineers in the field has steadily declined over the years. Many young people are reluctant to pursue science, technology, engineering or maths related courses and careers. It is often viewed as too difficult, too dull or not well paying. For the engineering practice to be successful, educational institutions and the industry must partner to invest in drawing out a reservoir of talented people.

Engineers have an obligation to meet the basic needs of all humans for water, sanitation, food, health, and energy, as well as to protect the earth’s natural diversity. Currently, the world is facing significant environmental challenges. In the next two decades, it is estimated that the world’s population would have increased by two billion. This growth is expected to put a considerable strain on resources already considered scarce such as water, food, land, energy, healthcare and transportation. Additionally, some technologies developed over the past few years have had a negative impact on the environment.

Young engineers have an opportunity to develop solutions to some of these challenges by approaching engineering with a holistic understanding of economic growth and applying sustainable principles. Educational institutions must build a basic tenet to aspire future engineers to be leaders in the movement for building an economically sustainable system.

The future demands that engineers are able to adapt to rapid changes in global forces and create a balance in the standard of living for both developing and developed countries. With leaps in economies, communication and travel the world has become a synergized unit with all economies dependent on each other. Many of today‘s global challenges can only be addressed through engineers working collaboratively in international networks. Young engineers must embrace a broader vision of their professional role to achieve this.

The ability to live and work within a global environment is a key prerequisite for future engineers. They will need to understand foreign cultures and be able to design and develop products for a global market. They will be required to engage a variety of stakeholders to drive solutions for complex global problems.

For the young engineer to effectively impact the global community, the profession of engineering will have to transform. There are several opportunities for engineering to alter human development and become a cornerstone of modern society. Only through focused efforts from educational institutions, the engineering industry and society will we be able to evolve the profession fast enough to match the dynamic shifts globally. The only people who hold the key to solving the world’s problems tomorrow will be engineers and scientists who are going through their school and university education now.

The Engineering Challenges in the 21st Century

Technology has dramatically shifted the landscape of today, driving up innovations and enhanced functionalities into the modern world. Opportunities are fast arising as new developments spurt in almost every field, and with it, a growing demand on engineers who are faced with the challenges to broaden their skills and master various technological disciplines. Below are some of the forces driving and shaping the engineering world:

A growing population and invasive activities on the global environment has raised the question on whether mankind can live in a sustainable manner and for what period of time.

Engineers are constantly faced with the challenge to design technologies and systems that can facilitate global commerce, education and healthcare and reinforce and expand new approaches to find and utilize existing resources. They also play an important role in resource conservation and waste management.

Food supply is threatening to become insufficient because of the increasing demands of rapidly growing populations and economies. This requires the implementation of new engineering approaches such as aquiculture and applications of genetics.

Increased efficiencies in the use of all resources, moderation of consumption and recycling of materials have become imperative engineering challenges that can only be overcome through the development new technologies.

The rapid population rise has caused an incredible strain on urban systems around the world. Transportation networks are overwhelmed by the desire for mobility, intensified by demographic trends toward urbanization, where jobs and resources are found.

Engineers of the 21st century face the formidable challenge of modernizing the fundamental structures that support civilization. Responding to the challenges emerging from the world’s rapid urban population growth will change how the engineering of public infrastructure is done in the future. The integration of technology into infrastructure systems presents one of the biggest tasks in developing sustainable urban systems.

New technologies and engineering approaches are needed to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the global population while preserving the capacity of the planet to support mankind. Engineers must develop new approaches towards the design, innovation and system integration of all activities to support urbanization.

The current energy infrastructure is heavily reliant upon fossil fuels, which is unsustainable. The continued processing of these fuels poses a great threat to the environment and mankind, particularly within the context of global climate change. There is significant pressure to shift away from the utilization of fossil fuels to non-hydrocarbon energy sources.

The modern society is currently dependent upon the availability of clean, affordable and sustainable energy sources. With emerging economies such as India and Latin America increasing their demands for oil and gas, the imbalance of sourcing a reliable energy source grows more serious.

To address this challenge, economies around the world are investing heavily in research to develop alternative sources to the energy crisis. The European Union, Silicon Valley in the United States, China and Japan are competing to ensure that their research and development bodies and leading businesses innovate the next generation in lighting technologies, energy efficient appliances, renewable energy systems, and fuel efficient cars for the coming decades.

Alternative energy technologies such as nuclear power and renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or biofuels still require considerable research and development before they evolve to the point of massive utilization.

Technologies are often characterized by exponential growth and can be disruptive in nature with its unrelenting pace to evolve. Their impact on social institutions such as corporations, governments, and learning institutions is often rapid and quite unpredictable. There is constant pressure on engineers to remain current and constantly brush up on technological advancements as they arise.

Researchers in technology must address customer and societal needs and market requirements and not just research for research or technology’s sake.

Though it is impossible to predict what the world will be like even in a few years, the engineering world needs to set out a vision and goal that will fit into long term sustainability for the world. That would allow all engineering efforts and strategies to focus on the development of whatever technologies are needed.

The world is experiencing a time of rapid technological advancement, driven by engineering. However, the numbers of students studying engineering have declined in recent years at a time when employers face new challenges due to globalization and the need to step up their innovation and technical expertise in order to remain competitive. This decline can be attributed to a growing lack of interest amongst younger people in engineering subjects which is often affiliated as a boring and difficult career choice.

Companies that rely on engineering skills are already in a spirited battle for talent. In the United States, tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Apple will need to fill upwards of 650,000 new jobs by 2018 to meet their growth projections. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone 2.5 million new engineers and technicians are needed for the region to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of improved access to clean water and sanitation.

Countries and companies are now investing in educating more engineers for the future by re branding the misconceptions around the field as well as providing incentives to attract more students.