How future-proof are the engineering sciences?

Does a degree in engineering automatically make you future-proof? Especially in countries that pioneer in the technical field, like Germany.

This question cannot be answered so clearly. And there are at least two reasons for that:

First, it depends on the industry. Many industries are undergoing radical change and have a need for specialized knowledge. Digitalization is just one reason. Another reason is climate change. Due to the shift to electromobility, the automotive industry is looking for electrical engineers. The switch to environmentally friendly technologies increases the need for specialized knowledge in this area. Trends such as smart cities or smart agriculture are influencing civil engineering and agricultural engineering, respectively.

Second, digital technologies and the shift to Industry 4.0 are changing production and work processes. Actually, the introduction of computer-aided design has been shaping the engineering profession since the 1960s. The use of computers and software programs has permeated many areas of activity in the engineering profession, such as design, manufacturing, planning and monitoring, sales, etc., in addition to driving automation in production.

According to a survey conducted by the German Mechanical Engineering Federation, there is a “need for qualification” in the area of Industry 4.0, “both for students and for employees“. The identified skills gaps are in future technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, as well as in data and IT security.

What skills for the future of engineering?

Our research using mechanical engineering as an example also shows that the three pillars of the engineering profession still exist:

  1. Technical Skills – engineering fundamentals such as mathematics, physics, materials science, engineering mechanics, and construction design are still necessary.
  2. Methodological Skills – includes analytical and problem-solving skills but also mastery of tools and methods, such as the finite element method.
  3. Self- and Social Skills– interdisciplinary collaboration in agile teams increases the need for Teamwork and communication skills.

Additional competences are becoming more important:

  1. Data – new technologies enable the collection, storage, transmission, and analysis of larger volumes of data (Big Data) and this has an impact on products, production processes and business models. Subsequently, there is also a need for people who can analyze the data and who are familiar with data protection or IT security. It is likely that specialists will be more likely to take on these activities. Nevertheless, it will be important for engineers to have a basic understanding of these areas.
  2. Systems Thinking – includes the ability to think holistically and to think through processes, products, and customer requirements from “beginning” to “end”.
  3. Interdisciplinarity Рas products and processes have become more digital and complex, engineers from one discipline should develop an understanding of other disciplines (e.g. electrical engineering, computer science, data management….)
  4. Learning and Social Responsibility – technical development requires human development. Here I see learning as a developmental process. In addition, it is important to think about the societal challenges that technology brings.

So, what should engineering scientists know?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to know everything! But you should be aware that the engineering profile is changing. A willingness to learn is an advantage, whether you are just starting your studies or are already working. Companies want employees who think critically, combine knowledge and develop new ideas for solving customer problems. They confirm this to me in conversations. Many of them also know that as a company they can’t just “demand” but also have to create supportive conditions.

Lifelong learning will thus have to become part of the training culture.

Looking again at the graphic above, this applies also to other (not just STEM) fields.

We will all need a better understanding of other disciplines, a handle on data, and the ability to learn and evaluate our actions.

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