This post was contributed by Glenn Bell, CEO at Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger.
The world in which today’s engineer works is changing at an enormous rate. Many of these changes are unsettling and will surely change our profession in a profound way. For example, computers and other forms of automation are replacing much of the effort we engineers have supplied in the past, commoditizing our business and leaving us wondering what our future roles will be. At the same time, I have been inspired by a young, new breed of engineers who have the vision and ambition to play a much more impactful role in making the world a better place. However, they don’t feel empowered or equipped to do so.
I believe our profession is at a crossroads. The positive path of this fork in the road offers the next generation of engineers a tremendous opportunity to meet its vision to be leaders in helping society meet its grand challenges. This vision would be met by a new breed of engineer, more broadly capable than ever before – more creative, collaborative, and communicative. We all must work together with great energy and urgency in this inspiring direction; the alternative path of the fork threatens our being steamrollered by continued automation and global competition.
That new engineer will help craft, and not just implement, public policy…
We all know about the leading trends for the future – globalization, sustainability, hazards management, and societal and technical complexity. If we look 40 years into the future, we see a new global practitioner working with varying technical standards and indigenous materials and techniques, one who sees his or her role from a societal context, who is able to define society’s important problems and not just solve them. That new engineer will help craft, and not just implement, public policy, and carrying out those plans will lead collaborative teams. To be that collaborative leader, tomorrow’s engineer has to be dynamic, agile, and flexible. And most importantly, great collaborative leaders must be great communicators, orally and in writing.
As problem solvers, we engineers are taught to break problems down into smaller and smaller pieces. Tomorrow’s engineer should be able to engage in lateral, functional thinking as well as vertical, in-depth thinking – to synthesize as well as analyze and integrate complex systems. To do this we must be able to span disciplinary boundaries.
The new breed of engineer must be able to embrace problems of uncertainty and, most importantly, help others understand uncertainty and make good decisions in the face of it. Balancing risk and reward among project team members is an important strategy for providing value through innovation. We need to accept ambiguity as a new permanent condition.
While many things about the engineer of the future already look different, we must not only retain, but also strengthen, our solid expertise in technical fundamentals. Blind overreliance on computers can erode our ability to make reasoned judgments that involve common sense and intuition.
Engineering will require an ever-increasing commitment to lifelong learning.There will be no coasting…
So how do we develop all the competencies of this future engineering leader? We must first take as a given that engineering will require an ever-increasing commitment to lifelong learning. There will be no coasting, so we need to sort out what we expect from each of the phases in the career-long spectrum of a professional’s development, from formal university training, to prelicensure internship, to postlicensure professional development. Currently we have redundancies, gaps, inefficiencies, and missed opportunities in our system. We expect too much from the undergraduate curricula, and as a consequence it is getting watered down.
As a general strategy, the earliest material addressed in an engineer’s development should be that which is most fundamental and most likely to be invariant over the course of a career. The changing stuff should be left for later, most particularly on-the-job experience and continued learning.
In the future, the undergraduate degree should deliver a broader body of knowledge with less urgency for technical specialization. The bachelor of science in engineering should assure a solid grounding in the foundational requirements for math and the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. A broad curriculum of engineering fundamentals should be stressed to provide the engineer with a solid grounding in analytical and problem-solving methods that will be needed throughout his or her career. We should expand our focus on the humanities and social sciences. This will lay the foundation for soft skills like problem solving, leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and communication.
Similar to other professions such as medicine and law, the graduate engineering degree should be considered the accredited professional degree. This should be not only where technical depth is delivered but should also include continued content on professional practice. I believe we will come to terms with the fact that even 30 credit hours of graduate education are not enough. For some specialized areas of engineering, we need twice this.
Looking beyond formal university education, we should raise our expectations for the engineer-intern experience. Here we can model some of the better practices of medical residency, wherein engineers in training would be exposed to a sufficiently broad set of experiences through a sort of rotation that is coupled with continuing formal education. Engineer interns could more directly “shadow” the professional engineer mentors rather than merely acting as their assistants.
What about ongoing education and professional development in the decades of an engineer’s career after licensure? To bring more structure to the notion of lifelong learning, we need to develop bodies of knowledge for continuing education. In my own firm we invest significant amounts each year in developing and delivering custom-made professional development for our staff and managers. I know many firms in our industry do the same. This is wasteful and ineffective. We need to define our expectations for this critical period of professional development and share resources.
I love this great profession of engineering. We cannot let it wither and die.
For engineering to meet its future challenges, we must radically redefine the relationship between practice, education, and research. These three endeavors should be so integrated as to be inseparable. Research should lead immediately to innovation, leading then to teaching and learning, then feeding back to more research, innovation, and teaching. We need to strengthen the connection between academia and practice through a greater number of practitioners teaching in universities and exposing more professors to practice. Again, we can borrow from the medical profession in this regard.
We should not underestimate the challenges inherent in driving change of this magnitude. To many, these changes will be frightening and threatening. We can expect inertia and resistance from many sources. So we must overcome our fears and inertia and lead change now.
I love this great profession of engineering. We cannot let it wither and die. If we work together with passion, energy, focus, and unyielding determination, we can take this great profession to even greater heights, and in the process change the world.
No one sector of engineering can make this happen on its own. How will you get involved? How can you help make this sea change a reality?