Engineering, as a profession, has often been portrayed to being based primarily on technical excellence. However in recent times it has become increasingly evident that there are many other traits that are required to be a proficient engineer, qualities that are often neglected in engineering education and within the industry itself.
One of the problems within the industry and engineering schools is the lack of clarity about the future roles of engineers as society becomes progressively more complex and uncertain. Engineering education is expected to prepare students for their future career roles; however in many cases the students still lack many important skills. Another issue is that the industry faces the threat of commodification, where engineers are imported from nations where they are willing to be paid less for doing the same work. Australian engineers will face the difficulty of losing employment to those with the same capabilities and who are willing to work for lower wages. Because of this there needs to be a clear initiative on how to keep Australian engineers “ahead of the pack” by providing them with qualities beyond those of their international counterparts.
Publications including ‘The Engineer of 2020’ (NAE, 2004) look at the upcoming challenges that engineers may face. It identifies several potential futures for society and the implications of these. Expected attributes for future engineers are given, along with suggestions on how to improve the current situation in preparation for the future. Solomon (1996) emphasises the need to expose engineering students to the humanities to develop their social skills which are essential to a profession that has become increasingly more people-oriented.
The aim of this study was to provide a concise review of how the engineering industry looks to become and to investigate how well educators and employers can prepare engineers that will be capable of facing complex problems in an efficient and successful manner, improving the quality of human life whilst being socially and environmentally responsible.
The methodology involved three perspectives, run in parallel to address different aspects of engineering futures and engineering education. In perspective A, futures that have been derived using the scenario planning technique were analysed in the context of engineering. The major result of this perspective was a list of collaborated future scenarios with their main characteristics and the nature of engineering in each. Perspective B involved looking at engineering education institutions around the world that are known to offer future oriented engineering curricula, in order to deduce characteristics that are valuable to the future of engineering and how these future oriented institutions achieve this. Finally, perspective C looked at industry views on these topics, namely the future requirements of engineering, future skills, proficiencies and roles of engineers and proposed changes to engineering education. The three perspectives were then brought together to produce a set of results based on multiple analyses.
The first finding was the discrepancies between the future requirements of engineering and aspects of engineering education that address these requirements. Resulting from this was a set of required characteristics and skills for the future nature engineering that were not addressed by the future oriented engineering programs:
●Understanding of and respect for the social context of the engineering work.
●Understanding the ethical application of engineering work.
●Respect for the environment and a drive towards conservation.
●Promotion of life-long learning.
●Mobility and flexibility.
Secondly, a list of future roles of engineers was deduced by drawing on a list of future roles documented by Bordogna (1998) from the industry views as well as roles implied by the future scenarios (in italics):
●Ensurer of safety/quality of life
●Engineering representative (to government, the community and corporate)
The final outcome of the study was an evaluation of differences between changes in engineering education suggest by industry and changes that have already been implemented in the future oriented engineering programs. The findings from this were that:
●Recommended changes to engineering education by industry were all addressed in some way by at least one of the future oriented engineering education institutions studied.
●The development of engineering education is largely based on views supported by industry (both current and projected future views).
●Those ‘future oriented’ engineering education institutions are simply a projection of the current leading edge, rather than a step further at the same level as scenarios which look at more radical and visionary futures.
●Traditional engineering educations could be viewed as somewhat complacent and not taking on the concept that engineering may go through major changes and reduce the effectiveness of their traditional curriculum.
Given these integrated outcomes, it became clear that future oriented engineering education and industry views are both based upon projections of the current leading edge. Scenario planning produces futures that are more diverse, so discrepancies arose between the results of the engineering futures and industry views and future oriented engineering education programs. The significance of this is the notion that even the most future oriented engineering programs and engineering practice do not have the capabilities that may be required for the future, due to the fact that they have a narrow scope of view on the future.