An engineer's perspective on how to prepare the engineers of tomorrow

01/04/2021

By Jorge Puente , VP of Engineering

20 years. That’s about how long I spent at a single company in the energy sector. The same company I joined after graduating from Purdue University as an industrial engineer. The company in which I embarked on a linear progression through the ranks – from field engineer, to eventually leading global teams in North America, South America, and Europe.

Sound familiar? For decades, this was the standard career path for the vast majority of degreed engineering professionals. Study hard in undergrad. Graduate with a B.S. Land a job with a large firm. Work your way through the ranks at that firm. Retire comfortably.

I’m here to tell you that this career path is dead.

The disruptive forces that catalyzed its demise – automation, interconnectivity and rapid innovation – have unlocked a range of new, exciting opportunities spanning industries and disciplines within engineering. They are also creating a need for new skills among engineers. So, how must academia, industry, and professionals adapt? At the most recent session of the Industry 4.0 Workforce Summit, I shared my thoughts on how best to prepare and support the engineers of tomorrow.

Shedding light on new engineering career paths

As the fourth industrial revolution has ushered in a new era of rapid innovation, the number of potential career paths for prospective engineers has multiplied. The proliferation of IoT, AR/VR, automation, and machine learning has created exciting, cutting-edge opportunities for those with the skills to harness these technologies. However, traditional engineering curriculum struggles to keep pace with these rapidly evolving changes to our profession, presenting many engineering students with only a limited view of the opportunities that exist.

Engineering students will benefit significantly from more real-life experiences earlier in their studies, particularly in these nascent fields in which practical applications are still being discovered. Academia and industry must work together to expand access to internships and co-op access so that prospective engineers can make better-informed decisions when deciding the career path that is right for them.

Tackling the skills gap among recent graduates

More evidence that engineering curriculum has not evolved along with the profession can be found in the widening gulf between the skills of new graduates and those most in demand by employers. Results from PwC’s Talent Trends 2019 survey show that 79% of CEOs are concerned that a lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening the future growth of their organizations, up from 63% in 2014. While it is perhaps unrealistic to expect engineering curriculum to match the rapid pace of change in the private sector, educators can help bridge the skills gap by offering modular training and upskilling opportunities.

Industry also has a role to play. Upskilling programs help companies remain competitive and drive innovation, while enabling them to attract and retain the best talent. Industry must work with academia to identify and incorporate into engineering curriculum the skills which are required in their respective fields and across industries. Candidates and engineering employers alike will benefit most from a standardized approach to skills certifications, whereby employers evaluate talent using a common framework which would enable talent and recruiters to accurately determine their strengths and gaps.

Navigating a mid-career transition to a new industry or field

In a perfect world, an engineer pursues the career path of their dreams and their current job serves as a step in that journey. However, given the wide variety of new opportunities available today, it is becoming increasingly common for experienced professionals to pursue a change. Today, Kelly Engineering is seeing more engineers turning to contract employment opportunities to help them pivot – and the benefits are numerous.

Contract employment opportunities enable engineers to explore new industries or functional fields without sacrificing their financial well-being, avoiding the debt and lost wages associated with going back to school. There are benefits for employers, too – namely, the opportunity to evaluate talent on a trial basis. Perhaps the most attractive benefit, though, is the potential for contract positions to open doors to permanent opportunities. In 2019, 30% of contract engineers placed by Kelly Engineering were hired by their employer into permanent positions. I expect this trend to continue as engineers and employers increasingly recognize the advantages of this approach.

Working together to effect change

The opportunities before prospective engineers have never been greater. However, fundamental changes to the way our profession approaches education and career development are essential to prepare the engineers of tomorrow to take advantage of these opportunities. These changes will only materialize through collaboration between academia and industry – through forums like ASEE’s Industry 4.0 Workforce Summit, and others like it. There is much work to be done, but I am confident in the collective ability of our profession to tackle the challenge.

Jorge Puente is Vice President of Kelly Engineering, the third-ranked engineering staffing provider in the U.S. that connects more than 10,000 engineering candidates each year with opportunities on the cutting edge of their fields – including autonomous vehicle technology, robotic process automation, green energy, and more.

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