offshore wind farm

Wanted: traditional engineering skills

As new types of roles appear within growing industries such as telecoms, social media and computing, are traditional engineering skills still important?

Each year US business and financial title Forbes Magazine publishes a global list of 10 Jobs That Didn't Exist 10 Years Ago. Over half the jobs in its 2012 list were in the technology sector specifically within the rapidly growing telecommunications, social media and computing industries. So does this spell the end for traditional engineering roles?

The popular sectors

Since Apple launched its iPhone in June 2007 the ‘apps’ industry has positively exploded. To date Apple has earned more than $15 billion in revenue from its mobile applications alone and, given the average salary for an app developer hovers around the £50,000 ($90,000) mark, there has been a stampede of developers and programmers jumping aboard the apps wagon.

The advent of ‘cloud computing’ has also seen an increasing demand for engineers, strategists and database managers to facilitate online storage and file sharing.

With the boom in online shopping, retail businesses - from corner shops to online giants like Amazon - are now realising the value of customer data. Cue the rise of the ‘data miner’ – experts who know how to trawl for patterns within multiple datasets to accurately predict future trends.  

Outside of these arenas the emphasis on complex software is at the heart of many systems from the power industry to cars. Most of the recent innovation within the automotive industry is driven by advancements in software and gadgetry. Functions previously provided by electronic or mechanical systems are being shifted to software to the extent that silicon giants like Microsoft, Google, IBM and Cisco are all now moving into the automotive space.

New skill sets being taught

Consequently the last decade has seen droves of graduates leaving universities determined to seize brand new positions in industries on the rise.

In turn many universities are teaching new skill sets in an attempt to keep up with revolutions in technology that have caused rapid changes in career demand and rendered certain jobs obsolete.

Unfortunately this focus on ‘the new’ has had a dramatic impact on traditional engineering skills for which there is still a huge and now increasingly unmet demand.

Wanted: engineers with ‘traditional’ skills

“The emphasis on teaching new skills to cater for graduates wanting to go in new areas has created a huge gap in traditional disciplines”, explains Dugald McIntosh, engineering practice director at global recruitment agency Experis.

“For example: the UK is one of the world leaders in the automotive industry to the extent that £5.8 billion has been pledged by foreign companies in the UK over the next five years. Like wise the UK aerospace industry, the second largest in the world, is investing heavily in developing specialist engineers.

“Both these industries produce products with a very long life cycle that require tried and tested safety critical standards. But really core safety programming languages aren’t being taught in enough places to provide the graduates. New technology is great if you want to get there faster, quicker and cheaply – but you still need car breaking controls and altimeters on planes.”

So extreme is this shortage of engineers with core skills that big employers are now starting to work more closely with universities to ensure that the modules are more relevant to their industries.

“One of the things that Experis did was introduce one of our big clients to the university lecturers,” explains McIntosh. “They looked at the different course modules and said ‘if you can take away certain modules and add these we will come in and help you teach the new courses. And we will also guarantee placements for the graduates.’”

Promoting the supply of engineers

Another body dedicated to promoting the supply of engineers is Engineering UK, which has recently predicted that the country is going to need around 2.2 million engineers over the next decade. Not just to provide the skills needed in traditional long-life products but also to develop and exploit emerging technologies, such as advanced manufacturing, manu-services, and low carbon and environmental goods and services.  

“Although people are working on different applications core skills like electronics, civil engineering and so on will still underpin them,” says Paul Jackson, Engineering UK’s chief executive. “When you’re looking forward it’s really just about a different mix and match to get the right answer.

“Engineering will play a major role in tackling future global challenges - but the UK can only achieve success in these fields if future engineers have skills rooted in maths and the sciences.”

Hot future career prospects

So what exactly are the hot future career prospects that will be needed to face these ‘global challenges’?

First off, given the inexorable march of technology, hardware engineers are going to be very much in demand – working in infrastructure construction and repair, fibre, cable, satellites and so on. The trend towards an aging population that is living longer is already creating high demand in products and services.

Within healthcare, nursing diagnostics, combining nursing and computer sciences is on the rise and likewise diagnostic imaging at a molecular level. Advances in biotechnology mean there is an increasing need for the likes of tissue engineers and gene programmers.

Energy technology

Other burgeoning scientific areas include energy technology. Space-based solar power has been in research for three decades and is now fast becoming a reality. If the UK is going to meet the requirements of the new energy age and low carbon agenda, it’s going to require expertise in power systems - particularly in the offshore wind sector where it’s estimated a further 70,000 jobs will be created in the UK by 2020.

In turn alternative forms of energy and energy storage will spawn new industries like home-size fuel cells and affordable photovoltaic cells.

“Eking more out of what we’re using is going to be of incredible importance,” states Paul Jackson. “Smarter solutions are already starting to happen in terms of smart meters and smart grids etc. but we’re going to need rather more of that in the future.”

Although it may not sit well with environmentalists it’s a fact that renewable energy companies are going to be competing mainly with oil and gas for skills. Oil technology has accelerated allowing companies to find new ways of extracting, drill deeper and accessing oil from wells that were previously thought to be dry.

“New technology allows oil companies to be more efficient,” says Dugald McIntosh. “Consequently the oil and gas industries have seen double digit wage increases in the last year. We have not yet seen the appetite to pay those sort of wages in the renewable sector.”

3D technology

There are also many engineering opportunities in areas closer to home. Take 3D technology for example. In 2003 3D meant donning embarrassing spectacles – nowadays not only are there special cameras, projectors and screens in cinemas, but engineers are also working on perfecting home TV that allows you to watch 3D from your sofa.

And then there’s 3D printing, which has opened up the possibility of bespoke manufacturing. In turn soon there will be 3D print shops in your local high street that will need to employ a formally advanced skill set - people qualified to at least Level 3.  

Always in demand

Top grads will always tack towards potentially lucrative positions that value technological savvy and analytical aptitude - and there is a wealth of such roles within the engineering sector. Moreover it is an area that is unlikely to become over-saturated.

“If you want to work in new technology it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go into a completely new arena,” says Paul Jackson. “After all there are only so many people that can work for Facebook.”

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