A 2021 survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that 93% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it, while only 53% of them believed it was possible for them to meet net zero by 2050. 

In parallel with these findings, EngineeringUK has highlighted that there is a risk of an education and skills gap that could hinder decarbonisation and fall short of the UK’s net-zero 2050 targets. 

Underlining a significant failure in engineering education to prepare our current and future workforce to respond to the global challenges we face, these findings beg the question: what are we preparing tomorrow’s engineers for?

Educating for our past

Historically, engineering education has been focussed on graduates’ ability to solve technical problems. Whilst the value of technical skills in an increasingly tech-centric world should not be understated, the narrowing of focus on the technical alone has resulted in the exclusion of critical factors that ultimately interplay with the technical aspects of real-world engineering projects. 

Understanding of engineering ethics, the importance of social context, and interpersonal skills – to name a few areas – have fallen by the way-side across curricula. Studies have shown that this is not only off-putting for students, 60% of whom have said they would like to learn more about sustainability, but that this approach also leads to serious misconceptions about the work of practising engineers

…we are now dealing with the reality that it is easier to educate students for our past than for their future. 

And even when it comes to technical skills, thanks to the rapid evolution of systems and technology, education is struggling to keep up with growing demands. The acceleration in automation, digitisation and AI, brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), is quickly making many engineering skills obsolete.

Meanwhile, new technologies are radically changing the way we work, with collaboration and communication extending across geographical locations, disciplines, and between humans and machines. 

Against a backdrop of increasingly urgent and complex global challenges, we are now dealing with the reality that it is easier to educate students for our past than for their future. 

Time for a gear change

Engineering education needs to keep up with this change. Not only must engineers be graduating with the technical skills to deliver new ideas and solutions, but the ability to creatively adapt to rapid changes in how we work and the challenges we are faced with.

We need to be asking how education can prepare graduates to collaborate across disciplines and cultures, and to prioritise the human dimensions of their designs. Overall, we need to expand our idea of what an engineer is to reflect the significant role we play in society and the versatile skills required to deliver projects that work for people and the planet.  

At Engineers Without Borders UK we refer to these skills as crucial skills – other names used include soft skills, durable skills or core skills. We may never settle on one name, but what we can agree on is their importance. 

The job market agrees. As AI becomes more ubiquitous, crucial skills are what sets humans apart from our robotic colleagues. A study in 2017 reported that “soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030” and not only that, but hiring employees with more crucial skills could increase revenue by more than $90,000. 

Empathy in engineering

An overarching theme across these skills is empathy. Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, reports that empathy plays an important role in society’s ability to function effectively and promotes an appreciation of shared experiences and needs. Moreover, research suggests that connection and compassion are vital to a sustainable and humane future.

To deliver truly globally responsible engineering, empathy must become the cornerstone of design.

Empathy can equip engineers with the ability to take a more ethical, inclusive and responsible approach to practise. The work of engineers requires highly technical expertise but also a deep understanding of the context we are working within and the needs and values of the people we work with – those that our work will ultimately impact. 

By encouraging constructive and mutually understanding relationships with stakeholders and those with expertise outside of engineering, engineering projects can be shaped by knowledge and experience that would otherwise be missed or hindered by underlying bias or assumptions. 

Through treating empathy as a skill that can be learnt and flexed within the profession, we can thereby magnify the benefits that engineers bring to the world whilst cultivating cultures of trust within teams.

To deliver truly globally responsible engineering, empathy must become the cornerstone of design. We need the engineers of today and tomorrow to develop and practise the crucial skills underpinning this if we are to meet the scale of the challenges ahead.

What next?

To learn more about the crucial skills required to meet global challenges, check out our latest opportunities below.

Dr Jonathan Truslove, Education and Skills Lead at Engineers Without Borders UK

Crucial, not soft skills

With research indicating a major skills gap in engineering, Dr Jonathan Truslove investigates how we can ensure current and future workforces are equipped with the crucial skills required to meet global challenges.

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