The future role of engineers | Engineers Australia Executive Breakfast

Dr Bronwyn Evans, Engineers Australia CEO

It’s wonderful to be able to serve the profession at this particular time – Engineers Australia is celebrating its Centenary, while exploring what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means for our profession.

Australia is on a journey towards a new economy and new industries, and engineers will play a critical leadership role in making this transformation successful.

While some jobs will be automated out of existence, and others will change, there will also be new opportunities.

After all, the motor car put buggy drivers out of work but created more demand for mechanics, petrol sellers, parking attendants, oil refinery workers and manufacturers of fluffy dice!

Today, I’m going to share our experience at Engineers Australia in talking to employers about the future, and also draw on some research by the Australian Council of Engineering Deans or “ACED”, an organisation we’re also part of.

When Engineers Australia asks employers what they value most in staff – and seek in new hires – the answer isn’t technical skill.

The most common responses include: emotional intelligence; creativity and innovation; communication and interpersonal skills; teamwork, work ethic and initiative; and willingness to take responsibility

Forward-thinking engineers and leaders are predicting a split in engineering, with one group leading automation and another supporting human needs and experience.

Non-technical skills are increasingly significant contributors to professional success, and that trend is set to accelerate.

However, some employers are already looking for tertiary study in software as well as engineering, due to the automated nature of engineering solutions.

ACED quoted Kellie Parker from Rio Tinto saying: ‘As a mining business, you have core skills that you gain from a mining engineer and traditional professional skills. But we’re seeing that those skills need to be combined with some of the new skills of data science, artificial intelligence and how they come together.’

It’s worth noting that Engineers Australia’s Chartered competencies include stakeholder engagement, ethics and communication as well as creativity, innovation and sustainability. We understand it’s not all about technical skills.

Engineers Australia’s Graduate Program also includes topics like communication, resilience, problem solving, stakeholder engagement, project management and leadership. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of the program, it runs over 18 months with a blend of online and face-to-face engagement. It was developed in consultation with industry, is well established in other states, and has recently started its first group in Tasmania – engineers from: Cova Thinking; Elphinstone; IPD Consulting; JMG Engineers and Planners; Pitt & Sherry; and Shaw Contracting.

Another factor driving change is an increasingly “blended” engineering landscape. Engineers are being expected to work in multi-disciplinary teams on tasks of increasing complexity.

People want “T-shaped” engineering knowledge. If you imagine a capital T, the horizontal line is a broad overview across a wide range of areas, while the vertical is an area of deep expertise.

Expectations around trust and social licence look likely to increase, and engineers will have to pay more and more attention to life cycle, the environment and societal expectations.

Engineers will be expected to engage in “problem finding” – articulating the challenge in conjunction with stakeholders and actively identifying opportunities for improvement – not just problem solving. 

In the current and future environment, public confidence is a challenge. Right now, we’ve got headlines about Opal Towers, Mascot Towers, Lacrosse and the like. Concerns about climate change loom large. Long-standing alliances and trade agreements are under threat, and trust in traditional institutions and authority figures is low.

Engineers Australia has a role to play here – through the National Engineering Register, and our Chartered credentials, which are globally benchmarked. The two are different. Registration is a minimum benchmark to work independently, while Chartered is a mark of trust, skill and expertise that shows an advanced level of competence, experience and judgment. 

I recently had the privilege of welcoming our 25,000th active Chartered member – and it was an engineer called Sarah Hannah from AGL.

AGL is partnering with us to work towards a fully Chartered engineering workforce. If you’ve got a Chartered workforce, you can demonstrate that your engineers have been independently assessed as competent in accordance with globally benchmarked standards – and, in a litigious environment, that has value.

With the huge pipeline of infrastructure coming through for Tasmania, you’ll need to import engineers – and you can use Chartered status as a measure competence when you’re hiring engineers from organisations you’re not familiar with.

This leads me to another question: how are you going to keep your engineers in future? You aren’t just competing against other engineering employers, but the option of working: in other industries; moving interstate or overseas; or creating your own start-up?

That’s a question for you but I think Tasmania has a pretty compelling offer in terms of lifestyle, housing costs and the natural environment as well as professional opportunity.

You don’t need me to tell you about Tasmania’s current engineering achievements, or your strong legacy of engineering heritage. I feel confident Tasmanian engineering will play a vital role in future.

So how do we succeed in this brave new world? I was asked to provide my top tips. The first is to be adaptable – “this is the way we’ve always done it” isn’t good enough. The second is to problem find, not just problem solve – take the initiative, be strategic. The third is to never stop learning, with both technical and non-technical skills – you need to stay up to date.

Every year, Engineers Australia holds more than 1,000 professional development opportunities – seminars, site tours, conferences, get-togethers etc – and last year we had 92,000 people registered to attend.

Before I go, I’d also like to draw your attention to a very special event coming up soon – the World Engineers Convention in Melbourne from 20-22 November.

Also known as the “Olympics of Engineering”, it will be the first time WEC has come to Australia, and it’s going to be huge – with over 2,000 participants from the likes of Tesla, and more than 580 international and Australian speakers gathering under the theme Engineering a sustainable world: the next 100 years.

Looking ahead, it’s impossible to predict what the next 100 years will hold, but I’m confident that the advances we will make will rely on the profession that turns ideas into reality – and that’s engineering.