SKILLS 2030:


2 minute read
Susan Dumond, Ph.D. Roma Agrawal

Technologies are transforming our lives and our world, impacting every type of infrastructure you can imagine.

This shift requires new skills, such as greater creativity and innovation, better communication and collaboration, and more interdisciplinary specialists.

Current debate within the industry is focused on how the role of the engineer must evolve to deliver future infrastructure.

In response, Roma Agrawal and Susan Dumond propose a skills manifesto for creating the engineer of the future.


It’s 2030. You’re hiring. We’re already looking at super-fast pod travel. Autonomous vehicles are the norm, and clean power generation has successfully seen the replacement of most fossil-fuel-driven power stations.

This vision of the future demands smarter, more sustainable, resilient and innovative infrastructure solutions as default, and you need a new generation of talent.

The challenges are familiar — they include training an interdisciplinary workforce, unleashing their imagination and expertise to solve future problems, anticipating which innovations and technologies will be in the ascendant, attracting a more diverse and inclusive workforce, and working much harder to tell our extraordinary and inspiring stories.

Most pressing for the industry is the issue of how to train, attract, and retain the new kind of engineers needed to deliver our smarter networks and systems.

We are at the beginning of this journey. To help drive debate and action, we propose a Skills Manifesto to address the infrastructure skills gap and, more specifically, create the engineer of 2030. What’s the spark that will inspire the next generation? What, together, do we need to change? How do we create and encourage innovation?

We spoke to engineers, professional associations and academics around the world about their ideas, and how we might together design a route to the future.

Fire Up the Next Generation

For the 2030 engineers, the future’s bright. The future is exciting. In the coming years, these minds will reshape the world around us — radically transforming and improving the ways in which we live and work together, with the latest innovations and technology.

But the industry must work hard today, if it is to secure the talent that it needs for the future. Around the world, countries including China, South Korea, Japan, the U.K., Germany, the U.S. and Brazil report an engineering skills gap.1

Although widely respected, engineering still isn’t seen as the most open, interesting or accessible career choice by young people. Especially when it is compared to the more “exciting” options of medicine and law that they and their parents, teachers and career advisors see on TV every day.

In addition, we’re losing qualified engineers to other industries. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau2 reported that 74 percent of graduates with a STEM-related bachelor’s degree in the U.S. are not employed in STEM occupations. While many of those that do work in these fields are choosing to benefit from the higher, more competitive salaries offered in the tech sector. Interviewed for AECOM’s Future of Infrastructure research, Peter Rogoff, Chief Executive Officer of Sound Transit, explains, “Here in Seattle … the infrastructure sector struggles mightily to attract and retain good IT people. They can walk down the street and make a lot more money working for Amazon or Google or Microsoft.”

As an industry, the story we tell about ourselves needs to change ­— and fast. It needs to be human, impactful and, above all, authentic. Emanuela Tilley, Director of University College London's (UCL) Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP), argues, “I think the students coming in have quite a higher level of empathy, and they want to make an impact on people’s lives … we have to show the students how their work can really impact people.”

Brittany Harris, a graduate engineer, currently featured in the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) Invisible Superheroes exhibition, agrees, “I chose to be a civil engineer because I wanted to make a positive change in the world … but civil engineering is often misunderstood … one way to attract a more diverse talent pool is to exhibit … the contribution we make to society.”

Crucially, this story needs to be heard more widely. Peter McIntyre, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Engineers Australia (EA), sees this as a major priority for the industry in the future. “In Australia, we’re very good at talking to the profession about the smart things we do … But we haven’t, traditionally, taken that discussion into the mainstream media … anywhere near as well as we could … I think that’s where we can start to change the hearts and minds of young students, parents and teachers.”

Call to action
  1. Start talking: We need to promote our industry and the opportunities it offers more broadly across society.
  2. Be human: Ensure our story is as inspiring as our work and the better world we can deliver.
  3. Be authentic, be impactful: Tell the stories people can relate to, that show the benefits of future infrastructure to their lives.

Securing a diverse and inclusive workforce

Our story matters. But so too do the people we have to tell it. The business benefits of diverse and inclusive teams are clear. As Deloitte’s latest Global Human Capital Trends report affirms,3 they are “more innovative, engaged and creative in their work.”

But despite initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion within engineering, the global infrastructure sector’s workforce remains largely male, middle-aged and white.

We won’t change that reality overnight, but we can push harder and think more radically to achieve the progress we need much faster.

As Professor Dame Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says, “It is time for a real culture change — the profession needs to be more inclusive. We have made real progress, but it is evident that the engineering workforce does not reflect the diversity of the overall working population.

We need to start young, challenging the sexist and outdated assumptions — prevalent in the world around us — that still work to limit the ambitions of young people from more diverse backgrounds. This ranges from the types of toys we give to our children to the leaders we develop and promote within our industry to be champions and advocates.

It requires us to draw on new faces and voices — people who haven’t necessarily been in the industry for decades but can speak with authority and authenticity, and engage those whom we’re currently failing to reach.

We need to be bold. Organizations across sectors are benefiting from breaking with traditional work practices and norms.4This includes providing gender-blind application processes5, reverse mentoring,8 tying reward packages to diversity results, and innovative flexible working initiatives.9

We need to be brave, ensuring we rate people on more than their grades and subject choices. Professor Tim Ibell from the University of Cambridge asserts, “Engineers need to be good at STEM, of course, but of far greater importance is an engineer’s ability to be creative, deep thinking and able to work with others. To help achieve this, we need to place ‘Why?’ central to the education of engineers. The education of engineers has traditionally been focused on ‘How?’ and ‘What?’. When ‘Why?’ is added to the mix, the whole population becomes attracted.”

President of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Kristina Swallow told us that greater community engagement and a focus on addressing our communities’ needs can also have an impact, “Doing this — becoming a more nimble, innovative, engaging profession — is one key to attracting a broader, diverse talent pool. Another, that is directly linked to the challenges we face, is to fully adopt sustainability design principles in all of our work. People from all walks of life can understand the opportunity and value in working on projects that improve communities as a whole.”

In addition, we need to be more honest with ourselves and each other. Research10 from the Royal Academy of Engineering found that, “White male engineers feel that the culture of engineering is more inclusive than female engineers, who in turn feel that it is more inclusive than engineers from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.”

Crucially, it highlighted the barrier of “inclusion privilege”,11 which means that “those who feel included are the least likely to take action.” If we want things to change, we can’t shy away from discussing these issues openly, together — revealing and addressing the unconscious biases that prevent fundamental change.

Dame Ann sees driving greater diversity and inclusion in engineering as a fundamental part of her organization’s role in the future, “Together, we can challenge the status quo, sustain and extend networks, communicate and consult — both within and outside the profession — and continue to publish measures and benchmarks to track our progress.”

Call to action
  1. Break with tradition: If the way we’ve always done things isn’t delivering the results we need, then more radical change is essential.
  2. Talk honestly: We need to uncover and address the unconscious biases and assumptions that currently go unspoken.
  3. Check your privilege: Just because you don’t see a problem, it doesn’t mean a problem does not exist. We need to look again and think again.

Train for future infrastructure

On campuses across the world, there’s a revolution taking place in engineering education. Professor Mike Hounslow, Vice President and Head of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield, explains, "We've undergone a period of significant change in the last 10 years; doubling the number of our students, investing in purpose-built facilities and continuing to improve their experience whilst studying here."

The aim is to replicate the professional environment and practical challenges modern engineers will face in their careers every day, as closely as possible. For students at the University of Sheffield, UCL’s IEP and also institutions in Hong Kong, this includes giving students more opportunities to work in multidisciplinary teams tackling real-world problems.

An academic from a leading Hong Kong university states, “Innovative teaching and learning are important for training the next-generation engineers … New teaching pedagogies involving structured active learning … (experiential learning, blended learning and/or online learning) should be implemented … in the years ahead … We see the need of offering 'multidisciplinary thinking' in our engineering education — as emerging topics such as smart cities development will require engineers to work across different disciplines.”

As Emanuela Tilley, IEP Director at UCL, says, “It’s not solely about specific content anymore really or, indeed, traditional knowledge. It’s much more about processes and their [the students’] application of the knowledge.”

UCL also uses scenario-based learning, where students work on a discipline-specific, week-long project in small groups, such as designing a footbridge, tunnel or wind farm, instead of attending regular lectures. Emanuela Tilley is clear, “If you give a student a project, it has to be real.”

This commitment to authenticity must also extend to the environment in which they learn and the technologies they use. Professor Hounslow highlights, “In our main teaching building,12 The Diamond, we have a Siemens-sponsored13 facility for data visualization from a cloud-based platform and it’s connected live to real infrastructure, some of our own and some of our collaborators.”

Academic sources in Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are united in citing initiatives incorporating new technologies, such as building information modeling (BIM), drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), artificial intelligence (AI), smart solutions and 3D printing across research, and undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and learning in their institutions.

This focus, in large part in the PRC, is being driven by future infrastructure trends in smart cities.

At the University of Cambridge, they’re incorporating the pioneering work of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) in the use of sensors in infrastructure across their engineering programs.

But Professor Tim Ibell, the Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering at the university, identifies a need for educators to go further, “The essential aspect will involve bravery in deciding which aspects of a traditional engineering degree should be dropped … to embed more important skills which a 21st-century engineer will need. This will be controversial, but it must start now without delay.”

Our learning does not cease at graduation. Speaking at the 2017 IEEE Vision, Innovation and Challenges Summit,14 James Plummer, engineering professor and former dean at Stanford, stated, “The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years.”15

More and more, our organizations will need to provide what Deloitte16 calls “always-on learning” — building cultures, platforms and spaces where people have the opportunity to develop, as well as potentially making learning a mandatory part of the work week.

ASCE President, Kristina Swallow is excited about the changes in teaching techniques and learning opportunities available to civil engineering students today, but recognizes there is still a lot to learn upon entering the field. “Throughout my career, I have seen that what I need to know now has changed … with time, technology, and generally society, but it has also changed as my role has changed.”

Building on this, both new and more established members of the profession can learn a huge amount from each other, and valuable initiatives such as reverse mentoring17 can help make this a reality.

Call to action
  1. Stay on the cutting edge: Engineering teaching and learning must reflect the professional challenges, environments and tools of a modern engineer’s working life.
  2. Keep learning: Inspire engineers to seek learning in their daily jobs.
  3. Maximize your existing workforce: The knowledge and expertise of our people is one of the most valuable assets we have. We need to share this with each other.

Use What Makes You Human

Robots aren’t just coming to a desk near you. They’re already here. With more routine engineering tasks set to be automated, it poses the question, “What will humans do?”

The answer, we’re pleased to say, isn’t as bleak as you might think. In fact, rather than being sidelined by machines, we’ll get to be even more of what we are … human.

In “Humans Are Underrated”,18 Geoff Colvin asserts that our ability to empathize, communicate and collaborate with each other will be vital to our future success, “We are social beings … We want to work with other people in solving problems, tell them stories and hear stories from them, create new ideas with them.”

As we know, the future infrastructure engineer will need to be equipped and ready to lead and work in multidisciplinary teams, crossing specialisms, organizations, sectors and borders. UCL’s Emanuela Tilley is clear about the challenges this poses, “That is a very different way of working … the language is different. The roles are going to be different, the understanding of how people work, timescales are going to be different.”

As academic staff in Hong Kong point out, “The top skills to acquire for students are innovative problem-solving skills that go beyond traditional knowledge or industrial 'codes'. Students need to be more adaptive, innovative, research-minded, having the ability for self-learning and entrepreneurship.”

In the future, our organizations will also need to be as agile as the work we deliver, with teams being pulled together as projects demand. In response, our leadership and management practices will also become more fluid — evolving and changing with the development of each new project and team.

This creates exciting new opportunities for very different kinds of leaders and engineers to emerge: technical experts — yes, but also powerful communicators and, most importantly, committed listeners able to engage and secure the support of stakeholders to help solve complex infrastructure problems.

Call to action
  1. Embrace the future: Technology will continue to replace some roles, but the very human skills of empathy, collaboration and communication will be at a premium.
  2. Break down silos: Multidisciplinary teams will be the norm. We need to break out of our comfort zones to take on new ways of working to learn from each other.
  3. Listen and lead: We need to empower our people to be ready to step up as leaders and managers, whenever the work demands.

Reboot the Industry to close the skills gap

It’s always a gamble to predict what the workplace of the future might be. Nothing is certain, with new technologies, industries and roles emerging all the time.

But we do know some of the biggest, emerging trends set to reshape our working lives in the next 10 to 15 years.

First, we’re already living and working longer than ever before. In “The 100-Year Life,”19 Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott propose that our traditional three-stage approach to life — education, career and retirement — is ripe for reinvention, with the majority of children in wealthy countries born today expected to live to be 100 or more.

According to Gratton and Scott, future generations will experience multi-stage lives, and look to their employers to help them seize new roles and opportunities at different ages.

As a result, our industry will need to offer more dynamic, less linear career models — creating new, flexible routes for individuals to build new skills that can lead them to different projects, functions and disciplines, supply chains and sectors; or even to become an entrepreneur inside a company.

Secondly, this demographic shift is making our workplaces more multi-generational, with Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials in the workforce together for the first time. “All of whom”, PwC’s Next Gen study states,20 "aspire to a new workplace paradigm that places higher priority on work/life balance and workplace flexibility.”

For some, this sounds like the death knell for the traditional “working day”, with tech-empowered employees pushing to shift their hours and work to the times that best suit their own approach and lives.

It potentially also marks a transition to more community-based, shared workspaces that employees drop into and use as needed. As the PwC study shows, “They [Millennials] view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place’."

This more fluid working environment will require a new kind of manager — someone able to lead and support a team of people, all potentially working in different ways, at different times, in different places, to ensure the client’s needs are met.

Finally, as disciplines continue to converge, the future infrastructure industry will increasingly need to draw on the skills of engineers from other sectors.

Eugene Smethurst, Head of Process and Automation at AECOM, predicts, "A large-scale shift of technology engineers will move into this space from manufacturing, IT providers and CAD system providers, etc. … they currently have the skill sets needed to transform future infrastructure, but are lacking in infrastructure knowledge.”

This, in turn, demands we make it easier for different types of engineers to work in infrastructure.

Call to action
  1. See the individual: People will want to develop their careers in exciting new ways, throughout their lives. Find the strengths they bring.
  2. Construct new ways to work: A shake up of the traditional “work week” is already here.
  3. Learn from others: Innovations and skills from other sectors will help us to identify and deliver the next big things in the future of infrastructure.

Evolve to Succeed

In this agile, smarter infrastructure world, we need our professional institutions to be more innovative, more vocal and more diverse drivers for change.

For ASCE President, Kristina Swallow, this means pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the industry, and promoting greater sustainability, “We need to continually support research and development of new, innovative solutions … optimizing the assets we already have and developing projects that will be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.”

Discussing the ICE’s work, graduate engineer Brittany Harris says the focus should be digital, “The future will require engineers to be more agile and forward thinking, taking into account the changing social, political and environmental climates. We have already seen a huge drive from the recent and current ICE presidents towards digital engineering, and I can only expect this to grow.”

The shift to digital highlights the growing need for professional organizations to widen their scope beyond their traditional disciplines to support their members and industry in an increasingly multidisciplinary future.

In addition, our professional bodies are crucial to promoting the positive economic and social impacts of smart infrastructure. Public debates about big issues like this are increasingly taking place on social media, where algorithms filter the content we see based on our existing views and likes. As a result, people’s views are becoming more entrenched, whatever the facts.

Against this backdrop, Peter McIntyre, EA’s CEO, believes one of his institution’s most important roles in the future will be to try to break through this bubble, ensuring more rational, informed and honest debate about the big future infrastructure questions shaping people’s worlds. “Without fear or favor … we need to advocate for good public policy positions … because we have the ability to talk … from a position of political indifference and with a lack of partisanship … based upon evidence and good critical thinking … to try to guide the public debate.”

Kristina Swallow agrees, “As experts in the field, it is important that civil engineers take on the roles of technical advisors and key influencers … educating others about the importance of managing our existing assets, minimizing impacts to the natural environment and making sound infrastructure investments.”

Our professional institutions also recognize a need to consult with their members more closely and amplify a range of voices across the sector. Peter McIntyre says, “We’re now starting to design our processes to engage our members more deeply on issues … I would like to envisage us as an organization that, using the power of social media, … taps into the power of its own members to robustly develop and test its own positions … that means you get greater ownership of those positions from members. It also means people feel they can actually contribute … more fully.”

For Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Royal Academy of Engineering President, the drive for change needs to start from within, “As an Academy, we have been on a journey towards ensuring that our staff and Fellows properly reflect the society we serve. This began by addressing our own Fellowship and staff, and … the Academy has just been listed as one of the top 50 inclusive employers in the U.K.21 We will continue to push for greater inclusion and diversity in the profession — it is vital for the profession’s health, and that of the U.K. as a whole.”

Call to action
  1. Drive innovation: As members, we can ensure that our professional associations embody and help us deliver the changes our industry needs.
  2. Break through the noise: These organizations can leverage their members’ expertise to promote evidence-based debate and help change minds.
  3. Amplify our voice: Together, these organizations can help us to develop increased ownership within our industry of the future we want to see.

Who will the 2030 Engineer be?

No one can gaze into the future with 100 percent accuracy. Over the next decade or so, we’re going to continue to see new technologies disrupt the infrastructure sector in ways we can’t even imagine now, creating new kinds of industries and jobs as well as making others obsolete.

Based on our current research, we believe these are the top five skill areas that will set the 2030 engineer apart:

1/ New rules. New routes

It won’t just be an engineering degree that gets you through the door. The future infrastructure industry is going to be hungry for people qualified in IT, communications, art and design, and life sciences.

2/ Across companies, sectors and borders

As infrastructure programs grow in complexity and geographical scope, the ability to collaborate and work effectively in multidisciplinary teams across different organizations will be invaluable.

3/ Innovating across the project life cycle

The future engineer will use present-day innovations such as BIM, AI and 3D printing as standard. They will be expected to identify and take advantage of the efficiencies that these and other innovative tools, such as sensors and robots, deliver.

4/ And what do you do here?

It’s increasingly likely that the jobs of the engineers of the future will fall into three main categories:

  • Generalists ­­—­­ technical experts, also equipped to provide in-depth knowledge of clients’ key infrastructure challenges, from finance to regulation and program management.
  • Data specialists ­­—­­ coders, programmers and analysts brought on board to harness the benefits of the latest technologies, and mine the growing volumes of smart data being generated for insights.
  • Client advisors ­­—­­ strong communicators focused on providing the best in customer service, and working as the face of their organizations.
5/ Agile and culturally aware

With projects now crossing continents, and global trends such as urbanization and aging demographics driving the speed of change even further, the future engineer must be able to respond rapidly to the latest industry developments and tailor their ways of working to the diverse needs of international clients.

What one piece of advice would you give to engineering students now, in terms of the top skills they should acquire for the future?

"Be open to opportunity, is something I’ve learned throughout my career. You never know where something will take you and I’ve found that saying yes to opportunity has taken me farther than I could have previously imagined and given me experiences that I didn’t know were even options."

Kristina Swallow, President, American Society of Civil Engineers

"Engineers solve problems and take opportunities and, more often than not, it will be a new problem or a new opportunity. That's why engineers have careers. No one wants to pay for a problem that's already been solved, so you and your team will have to work out how to break the problem down into manageable components, then work collaboratively to find a solution. Your job as an engineering graduate is to go on and use what we've taught you to take new opportunities and tackle real-world challenges, with the ultimate aim of making the world a better place."

Professor Mike Hounslow, Vice President and Head of the Faculty of Engineering, the University of Sheffield

"Retain your creativity and your intuition … To teach a bright, broad-minded student to do calculus takes a week. To try to teach a narrow STEM-only student the language of design takes an awful lot longer. But it is design, which is central to being an engineer, rather than calculus — such that sketching, in order to develop ideas as well as to communicate these ideas; model making; understanding how and when to have ideas; collaborating with other disciplines as though one were covered in Velcro; and constantly questioning ‘Why?’ are all key skills which need to be developed."

Professor Tim Ibell, Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Cambridge

"We say to our students all the time … making decisions, and making the right decisions to reflect the full product, or the full team, or the project is the hardest thing that they’ll ever do … That self-efficacy to be given minimal information and come back with a rich amount of research, and … some insight and critical thinking, are the skills that I would get students to explore."

Emanuela Tilley, Integrated Engineering Programme Director, UCL

"Challenge everything! If you think there is a better way of doing something, then put it out there because the likelihood is you are ahead of the industry. Even if you meet resistance, keep challenging the status quo, because not doing so has let our industry fall behind — in diversity, technology and innovation."

Brittany Harris, Graduate Engineer currently appearing inICE’s Invisible Superheroes exhibition, part of ICE 200

"The ability to work with people through teams and lead people is just critical, so having people skills, and sometimes they’re natural … sometimes they need to develop. With that is the critical role of stakeholders in projects … I think we’re seeing more and more… the best projects and the things that are worth it for society are the ones that deeply and early engage critical stakeholders and take them on that journey."

Peter McIntyre, Chief Executive Officer, Engineers Australia

"Don’t get too narrow in your expertise and don’t be scared to work outside your comfort zone, it helps you to grow as a person and a professional. As part of this, don’t be afraid to fail, everyone does at one point or another. Women, in particular, often apply only for roles that they believe they are fully qualified for, and so lose out on some potentially excellent opportunities."

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President, Royal Academy of Engineering



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