Engineering is a vast global industry with the opportunity to do immense good in the world. Some of the challenges that modern engineers face can seem very daunting, especially in the areas of transport infrastructure, energy management and generation, climate change, water supply and construction to name only a few.
In the context of these global challenges, the future of engineering is also being framed by all of these very complex global forces. These challenges are particularly poignant in developing countries where recent technological and scientific advances open up exciting new possibilities for sustainable engineering solutions. To have any chance of meeting the challenges ahead, it follows that the education of our future engineers needs to keep pace with these challenges.
In this fast moving world, engineers need to be trained to manage the changes, complexities and uncertainty of the modern world. Designing sustainability into practical solutions is now a pillar of modern engineering education. The idea is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.
The engineering curriculum is already very crowded with important ‘core’ engineering topics. So finding space within the engineering curriculum to embed topics with relevance to the global challenges is a challenge in itself. However, the importance of these global skills is now being reflected in government policy in engineering education.
For example, it is now compulsory for engineering courses in the UK to incorporate sustainable development into its curricula. However, engineering curriculum development and reforms should not in any way erode technical depth. Now more than ever, professional bodies in engineering are bound to recognise the importance of the “global engineer”.
The question is, how many engineers do we need to tackle the challenges ahead? Over the next 30 years, it is estimated that the population of the world will increase by three billion. The world must produce more world class graduates and engineers than ever before and these engineers will now need to act in a globally connected world.
The requirement for an engineer to be knowledgeable, technically adept, culturally aware and able to demonstrate leadership is certainly not new, but its importance is growing. We will certainly see an increasing global demand for people with STEM skills in general and engineering skill in particular. Engineering skills are portable internationally and it is therefore not surprising that studies have shown international mobility for professional engineers continually increasing.
Engineering education is of course the bedrock on which key engineering competences are built. It establishes the principles that will guide the engineer through their career. There is now a shift by governments in recognising the valuable contribution engineering makes to society and to its economy. It is up to government in general to provide the vision for identifying engineering skills demand and their long-term supply.
The government also has a role to play in helping the engineering community to raise its profile in education curricula of all ages. Government, working together with engineering employers should combine efforts to promote engineering education and careers to help to attract more young people and in particular more women to the engineering profession. They should also create many more flexible routes into engineering, including apprenticeships and engineering academies.
It is likely that in the next 10 years, we will see technological changes and advances as big as those we have witnessed over the last 30 years. These new technologies and skills will need to be catered for in the engineering education system. It therefore needs to be flexible and responsive.
Engineering education will need to ensure the quality of its provision. Better links between universities and industry can help improve quality and foster innovation within the practice of engineering. Universities working together to form international partnerships will help strengthen capacity in research and knowledge related activities, improve quality and promote international student and staff mobility. These types of international collaboration will ultimately help enhance the employability of engineering graduates and encourage technology and skills transfer into industry.
In many cases, such links will ultimately enhance industry input to the engineering curriculum, building mutually beneficial cooperation between industry and academia and the sharing of novel pedagogical methods to ensure we produce highly skilled, highly employable, global engineers of the future.
(The author is a senior lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Staffordshire University, UK)