From the invention of steam engines to the emergence of mass production lines and the advent of computers, each of the first three industrial revolutions were driven by advances in science and engineering.

Notwithstanding the benefits they delivered, each was also no doubt coupled with uncertainty about their impact on people and workers.

Now, as the fourth industrial revolution sees interconnected machines make decisions on their own, questions are again being raised about the forward role of people.

In engineering specifically, such questions revolve around the role for people in engineering related disciplines and decisions, the skill sets needed going forward and how the profession can develop and attract the workers it needs.

Such issues were explored during a panel session at the World Engineers Conference in Melbourne last week. Chaired by behavioural economics and employee change consultant Jon Williams, the panel included John Sukkar, director of Engineering and Design at Data 61 – the digital and specialist arm of the CSIRO, Felicity Furey, engineer and director of Industry partnerships at Swinburne University and Meredith Westafer, an industrial engineer at Tesla Motors.

Each stated that yes, people will remain the focus of engineering.

According to Sukkar, people will still be needed but the skill sets will change.

Using examples of the manufacturing and mining industries, he says these have transitioned from being labour intensive through to people using machines to machines performing much of the work under control of people.

As Industry 4.0 progresses, we may in mining have robots able to map out and explore subterrain environments on their own.

Whilst all this may see machines making some decisions on our behalf by applying simple logic, Sukkar says human engineers will still be needed to think, learn, create and innovate. As well, skills sets will move from being specific to domains such as materials and structures to becoming more data intensive and geared around use of tools.

As an example, a project which his team undertook saw instruments placed within the Sydney Harbour Bridge to help understand vibration and detect anomalies. The data will be used by RMS for preventative maintenance. Learnings will help inform engineers building and maintaining other structures to understand which materials have greatest longevity and which designs are most suitable.

“I think we are still going to need engineers for thinking exercises,” Sukkar said.

“Whether it’s in manufacturing or construction or digital technologies. machines are not going to invent new things. You still need the knowledge and the ability to think, learn and design new things.”

Furey and Westafer offer broadly complementary viewpoints.

Furey says engineering will become more human as machines perform routine work and people are needed to think and process information.

Rather than take away jobs, she says computers are amplifying what people can achieve.

Nevertheless, Furey says engineers will need to complement technical competencies with abilities such as empathy, integrity, scepticism and problem solving. She points to IBM, which now bases hiring decisions more around people’s ability to learn rather than how much they know.

Westafer, meanwhile, says future engineering will be both more and less human.

Whilst engineers will continue to solve problems, computers will take over many ‘boring calculations’ associated with everyday tasks and free people up to focus on the broader framework for problem solving.

On attracting candidates, aforementioned commentators offer several observations.

First, Furey says it is important to consider how engineers talk about their profession.

She says engineers should explain not only what they do but why they do it and how their work matters. Rather than simply explaining technical aspects of a bridge on which they have worked, engineers could also explain how the bridge helped to reduce travel times and to connect communities.

Language is also important. Whereas expressions such as ‘built structures’, ‘write code’ and ‘research and analyse data’ can turn people off, Furey says words like ‘adaptable’, ‘creative’, ‘organised’ and ‘self-motivated’ can make the make engineering seem more relevant and accessible.

Such expressions may also help break down perceptions about engineers sitting in front of computers and performing calculations. In fact, Furey says engineers often use people skills to complement technical abilities.

As well, Furey encourages practitioners to support organisations which promote diversity across the engineering workforce – potentially volunteering their time to these organisations.

Westafer agrees about the importance of engineers communicating what they are doing. Speaking about her own employer in Tesla, she says commitment to the company’s vision and impact upon society is extremely strong. Whilst the company includes ample technical questions in its recruitment process, Westafer says Tesla typically only hires candidates who can speak to the company’s mission when asked why they want to work there.

As well, engineers must be given the freedom to innovate and perform design. Too often, Westafer says engineers are trained to consider the bigger picture only to encounter strict processes and procedures which restrict their flexibility on the job.

As the fourth industrial revolution gathers momentum, engineering will change.

Nevertheless, people will remain at the forefront of the profession.