Last week we delivered the latest instalment of our Constructive Conversations series – Mind the Gap! – a virtual panel discussion exploring the current skills crisis in engineering. 

We were delighted to welcome four panellists to explore the changes needed in education and industry to address this crisis: Catriona Schmolke, Trustee and Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering; Lynsey Clarke, Global Senior Director of Sustainability at Jacobs; Dr Goudarz Poursharif, Associate Dean-Education for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Aston University; and Toni McLaughlin, MEng Aeronautical Engineering student and EWB Glasgow President.

You can find a full recording of the conversation below, alongside a summary of the key themes covered during the conversation.

Throughout the discussion, some key themes emerged around the changes required to ensure engineers are equipped to deliver solutions that work for people and the planet. These included emphasising the importance of crucial (non-technical) skills, pushing for the integration of critical topics into courses rather than offering them as add-ons (if at all), and ensuring that we upskill the current workforce in these areas. 

Emphasising crucial (non-technical) skills

Kicking off the conversation, we asked the panellists whether they believed we are currently equipping engineers with the skills to combat our current and future global challenges. Across the board, the group agreed: not yet.

Lynsey Clarke began by sharing that, while there has been an increasing expectation amongst many companies that graduates will have an interest in and understanding of sustainability issues, there are a range of non-technical skills that recruiters would like to see more of in prospective employees:

“The skill sets that we are looking for are people that are adaptive, resilient, challenging the norm, innovative in their thinking, willing to stand up and go: ‘actually can we do this a different way? Should we do this a different way?’ It’s those skill sets that I think we need to invest a little more in, to make sure that the people that are coming into their careers now…can develop and evolve with a very rapidly changing market requirement.”

Drawing on findings from research by the Sustainability in Engineering Higher Education Working Group, Catriona Schmolke explained that this is in part because engineering curricula across the country are “patchy” when it comes to teaching non-technical skills and that, prior to university, there is an overemphasis on the need to have a background in maths and physics. As a result, she believes that crucial skills, such as “being able to sell why we should do something differently”, are missing in the current workforce.

Supporting this statement, Dr Goudarz Poursharif suggested that “a lot of educators do not have the confidence to go into these realms” but that fostering these skills will be critical for ensuring we create “future agents of change”.

Integration, not add-ons

The panellists also agreed that ensuring courses adopt an interdisciplinary and holistic approach will be integral for developing engineers that are equipped for the realities of industry. Dr Goudarz Poursharif stated:

“[We need to]…transform the way we teach our courses, especially engineering education, because in other courses they already have that history of project-based learning, problem-based learning, simulated real-life situations. Ethics, for example, has been embedded in other social and humanities [courses]. We are lagging behind.”

Toni McLaughlin explained that there are ways to do this “without having a complete overhaul” of curricula, highlighting that while “we’re not able to change the fundamental laws of thermodynamics”, we can discuss the environmental impacts of engineering decisions, such as the choice of materials, and explore ways to make designs more efficient. 

To address this, Toni suggested that students and educators need to have conversations to identify the gaps in current curricula. She also encouraged students to find networks of people that share interests in these issues, adding that her experience as President of the Engineers Without Borders Glasgow Chapter has helped her to build her confidence in these topics.

Dr Goudarz Poursharif shared this sentiment, adding that inviting guest speakers from industry to teach content will be critical for ensuring education keeps up with the sector’s “fast-changing landscape”. This will also expose students to new industries that they can choose to do placements or complete their final projects with.

This is not just a problem for tomorrow’s engineers

A final key theme that emerged during the discussion was that we cannot just wait for the next generation of engineers to take on global challenges alone; emphasis must also be placed on upskilling the existing workforce.

Lynsey Clarke emphasised two clear drivers for companies to upskill their employees: to ensure that there is challenge and diversity throughout an individual’s career by enabling them to explore new areas, and to bring a diversity of skill sets and perspectives into teams as they address challenges.

To facilitate this upskilling, Lynsey explained that, alongside providing technical mentors, training courses, and Skills Academy-style programmes for employees, Jacobs also sees value in empowering individuals to apply their learning:

“Actually getting involved in delivery and applying that mindset and learning on the job is a really valuable way of building new skill sets.”

Catriona Schmolke added that there is a “huge body of expertise and experience in industry today” that is lost when engineers leave their careers. Recognising this, the Royal Academy of Engineering is looking to connect senior engineers to those in education through two-way mentoring to ensure that this knowledge is shared and that senior engineers feel valued.

Want to reshape engineering?

If you’d like to deepen your understanding of sector-wide challenges, whilst developing the crucial skills required to combat global challenges, register for our upcoming professional design challenge – Reshaping Engineering. Open to students and professionals alike, this is a unique opportunity to design solutions that could transform engineering education and practice.

Learn more and register!