Whilst the future is uncertain, engineers can be confident that their work in years and decades to come will look different compared with that of the past.

This article considers five factors that will shape how the profession responds to a changing world.


1. The future will be multidisciplinary

First, the focus of engineering work will shift toward a multi-disciplinary approach, Engineers Australia’s Advisor to the Chief Engineer, Peter Briggs, said.

According to Briggs, this will be driven by a rise in the number of projects for which the scale is too large and too complex to be confined to one discipline.

He points to clean energy as an example.

“The biggest change that I see coming is the amount of work or projects that will involve a multidisciplinary approach,” Briggs said.

“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.”

“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.

“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.”


2. Systems engineers will step into the spotlight

That multidisciplinary future will accentuate the need for systems engineers who can bring together a broad variety of expertise and design and manage increasingly complex projects, Briggs said.

These people will need to integrate disciplines across projects. They will need to ensure that the work of each discipline is optimised and implemented in a way that delivers best possible outcomes.

This, Briggs said, will be enabled by the fourth industrial revolution as the Internet of Things allows devices to be networked and connected and facilitates the generation of more data than was previously available.


3. Creativity cannot be automated

Whilst advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are expanding the scope for automation, Briggs said that engineers themselves are unlikely to be replaced by an algorithm.

Engineering requires creativity, innovation and design according to first principles from specific parameters, Briggs said. These do not readily lend themselves to automation.

That creativity, meanwhile, enables engineers to flourish even in sectors outside their original area of 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 practice to a huge range of projects, activities, and roles. It really is equipping people for an increasingly and more rapidly changing future.”


4. Four Boom Sectors

Whilst demand across almost all engineering disciplines is expected to remain, Briggs says there are several growing sectors in which the profession will play a particularly vital role.

First, there is the growing pipeline of large clean energy projects specifically and large infrastructure projects generally. These projects have a much larger scale compared with previous engineering projects.

There is also more focus on how sustainability can be embedded into each project – something which is critical if UN Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved.

Third, engineers will also play an important role in enabling the return of manufacturing and a continuing emphasis on infrastructure. This is important as a matter of sovereign capability.

Finally, engineers will be pivotal in delivery of the Australian Government’s Australian Civil Place Strategy 2019-28. This strategy aims to help diversify the economy, triple the size of Australia’s space sector and grow an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030.

Here, Australia is making solid investments. These include creation of Australia’s Space Force and the Australian Space Agency along with a multitude of start-ups.

“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.”


5. Micro-credentials will matter

Finally, the need for engineers to stay abreast of new information will be more important than ever, Briggs said.

Of particular value are micro-credentials, which enable practitioners to add new or particular capabilities to existing skill sets and to ensure that they stay current and at best practice.

Toward this end, Engineering Education Australia has launched four professional skills micro-credentials and four technical skill micro-credential. More are under development.

“Engineering is a discipline that requires lifelong learning,” Briggs said.

“Micro-credentials are going to be the future of upskilling for engineers.”


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This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in create Digital