This month, I’m happy to introduce a guest column from Engineering Change Lab USA (ECL-USA) President Mike McMeekin. ABET and ECL-USA join together in stressing the need to prepare today’s STEM students for the demands of the changing workforce. In this article, McMeekin shares takeaways from the recent ECL-USA Summit 14, Augmenting the Engineering Workforce Through Technological Innovation, which was held on March 15. Next month, I’ll add my own thoughts in support of McMeekin’s ideas for the changes necessary to keep up with the workforce of the future.
— Michael Milligan, ABET Executive Director and CEO
Engineering Change Lab — USA (ECL-USA) is a non-profit whose mission is to catalyze change within the Engineering Community, helping it reach its highest potential on behalf of society. Each ECL-USA summit features a deep dive into an issue that will impact the future of engineering. Two of our recent summits have focused on issues related to the engineering workforce of the future. In one of our 2021 summits we explored how the aspirations and values of new generations of engineers and other young professionals will impact engineering organizations. In our most recent summit, we looked at the unprecedented talent crisis that the engineering community is facing. This challenge is driven by low unemployment rates in the industry, the ongoing retirement of baby boomers and flat levels of new graduates, while the demand for new talent continues to increase dramatically, driven by a growing economy and increasing investments in infrastructure. Discussions at this summit explored how technology may be viewed as a significant strategy for closing this unfolding supply and demand gap. These two areas of workforce challenges come at a time when the Engineering Community is also faced with the need to contribute at higher levels in addressing the challenges of the 21st Century.
Our exploration of the impacts of the values and aspirations of new generations of the engineering workforce revealed two important findings:
- Across all age cohorts of the engineering workforce, there is agreement on the importance placed on “making the world a better place” and “positively impacting communities” as both sources of inspiration and as core beliefs. Purpose is important to employee engagement.
- Environmental protection, social justice and workplace diversity are viewed as personally important across all demographics with environmental protection showing the strongest support. Younger professionals and women are most likely to agree that their employer should be more concerned about the impacts of engineering on the environment and on societal issues.
These findings create a need for leaders of engineering organizations to find a balance between traditional practice and new demands for attention to environmental protection and social justice, to recognize the potential for tension between traditional project delivery metrics and the concerns of new generations of young professionals, to provide young staff more of a voice in decision making with respect to social and environmental issues, and to create a safe culture that supports dialogue and reflective practices.
Our exploration of augmenting the engineering workforce through technological innovations utilized a four-part framework for brain-storming potential strategies.
- Automate — technological innovations and new tools that can replace work currently done by staff.
- Eliminate — technological innovations and new tools that can eliminate work currently done by staff.
- Elevate — technological innovations and new tools that can increase the performance and productivity of staff and teams.
- Create — technological innovations and new tools that catalyze a transformation in how engineering staff and teams work and how they create value.
Some of the key takeaways from the discussions are captured below.
- Data collection technologies and 3D visualizations combining data on existing conditions and design data enhances decision-making in design, in construction and in communication with the public. Data collection technologies enable everything else.
- Generative design algorithms allow much more extensive analysis of design alternatives and, by freeing up time and through automated analysis, provide an enhanced ability to look at the environmental and social impacts of engineering work.
- Digital twins, combined with smart sensors, can provide value in operations such as predictive maintenance and reduced energy consumption.
- Data mining of previous projects, characterized as an app store for digital design, can increase efficiency and improve quality.
- Digital applications have the potential to transform regulatory and approval processes.
The most important takeaway from the summit discussions regarding technology’s ability to augment the workforce in engineering organizations was the need to take a long view. Organizations will need to commit to crafting long-term strategies that best fit their culture and environment. Then, they will need to commit to the significant new investments and to accepting the change management that will accompany these shifts.
You can learn more about ECL-USA at www.ecl-usa.org. Check out the Climate Change page on our website to see how ECL-USA is seeking to make addressing climate change a stronger element of the purpose of the Engineering Community.