Life beyond engineering: Facing infrastructure’s uncomfortable skills truth

16 October 2018
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Take a quick glance around your office and ponder briefly on what you actually spend your time doing all day. Then compare it to working life when you first left school, college or university. Pretty different today isn’t it.

Technology, digitisation and the connected environment have, at a sweep, remapped our working lives and accelerated the delivery of new tools, processes and priorities across our now hot and increasing mobile desks. Change continues with relentless pace.

The reality, of course, is that for all the change, the infrastructure sector has been among the slowest to embrace new digital technology and simply hasn’t yet transformed enough. While for the first time in generations infrastructure investment now sits as a key to driving the UK economy, our productivity compared to other industrial sectors has fallen way below national and international comparators.

And so, as we strive to meet this new and very welcome demand, we find ourselves once again facing a potentially debilitating skills shortage – the sort of shortage which without rapid and decisive action could start to act as a catastrophic brake on the fledgling Brexit UK economy.

Accepting the harsh reality: we don’t really understand the skills challenge

But today’s skills challenge is a far more profound and complex problem than we have ever faced before. The solution requires us to totally rethink the way we approach the design, construction and management of our built assets.

Fundamentally, do we truly understand the problem we face? While a variety of institutions and industry bodies - plus every private company – is busy trying to find a solution, to date no one has really addressed the true nature of this current skills shortage and really pinned down the skills we really need for the future.

As an industry, we have critical missing data around what future jobs in this industry will look like; who will we be employing and what skills do we really want these people to have.

Defining the role for professional engineers in this evolving tech-driven world

Given the relentless acceleration of industrial automation and artificial intelligence, will we really need engineers in the future? We already have the Rapid Engineering Model which is automating and accelerating design of smart motorways for Highways England – will technology eventually make the engineering professional as we know it redundant?

Intelligent autonomous drones and sophisticated video-based sensor technology are now in mainstream operation across the road and rail networks, gathering and assessing more information in the field than any team of roving inspection engineers ever could. Data analytics driven by artificial intelligence is now capable of making critical asset risk assessment decisions.

This is just the start. This future of automation and robotics means that we need to adopt a new approach, not least as clients demand new customer focused outcomes and greater certainty over time and costs in the delivery of major infrastructure projects. 

Tech-savvy talent for a new generation of jobs

We need to be more open and honest as an industry and much clearer about the skills the next generation of jobs will require. We need to start to explain the reality that, as the use and power of technology and data driven solutions increases, the traditional engineering and technician roles will change.

The future will require an agile workforce, more tech-savvy data analysts capable of exploiting the AI, automation, robotic and remote sensor technology as it enters the industry mainstream. 

As a sector we are not changing fast enough. We have the bizarre situation where students are leaving college more tech-savvy than the current industry can accommodate. That can’t be right. There is in effect, a whole generation missing from the industry as the talent fails to find a home in infrastructure.

This has to change. We need to be more aligned with academia to ensure that the future workplace is ready for the talent that modern university courses are delivering.

Collaboration to find the strategic thinkers that define a whole industry future

At Amey we have started to address the problem. Our 120-strong strategic consultancy business is immersed day in, day out in the challenge of using data and new technology rather than concrete, steel and soil to solve our clients’ infrastructure problems. Five years ago, that team didn’t exist.

But I believe that it is an issue that transcends the individual competitive advantages of infrastructure businesses. We need to work together to raise the entire sector and start to make the business of creating and managing infrastructure a truly compelling alternative to managing money or being a celebrity, where engineering professionals were truly recognised as pioneers. If we don’t, then we face the reality of a diminishing pool of talent.

We will always need an engineering core of practical and capable engineering professionals who can define, decide, design and solve. After all, what we don’t want to do is create a theoretical workforce incapable of translating its ideas into reality - but we need to have this range of new skills available in parallel.

In future, traditional engineering talents will have to be enhanced by new skills and new ideas. Ideas that bring better solutions to clients and solve problems from different perspectives. That means more strategic thinkers and more futurologists – more people who understand what the clients’ problems are and can explain the range of solutions available.

So take a look around you – are you and your organisation ready and capable of leading that change?


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