This piece was originally featured as part of the ICE Thinks series by the Institution of Civil Engineers. For more thought pieces from the industry, please see here.
A UNESCO study estimates that 2.5 million new engineers and technicians would have been needed from 2010 to 2015 in sub-Saharan Africa alone if the region were to achieve the UN millennium development goal of improved access to clean water and sanitation. The region fell well short of this ambition – and is still falling.
Europe also faces a labour shortage. For example, Engineering UK reported in 2016 that engineering companies will require 182,000 people with engineering skills in the UK each year to 2022. The number of graduates and apprentices entering the engineering industry will also need to double.
Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could address some skills shortages but concern is sometimes expressed that in advancing technology (such as automation of design work or advanced robotics) we hand over too much control.
Or that we create disproportionate opportunities for some highly skilled workers and owners of capital while replacing the labour of some less skilled workers with machines.
Does this mean we’re developing ourselves out of jobs as engineers?
No. Using automation and AI to undertake routine functions could free up our supply of engineers for more creative tasks. Our engineers would control and steer the algorithmic optimisations set up for machines. We should embrace the opportunities this could create for global development.
Automation and AI could benefit areas in great need of development but with low numbers of engineers. In earthquake-prone areas with unengineered buildings we could automate safer building details and monitor building performance through sensors. This would help engineers who are there to review and focus on creating improvements and new developments rather than using what limited engineering talent we have to address basic problems.
We as engineers are well aware of the benefits of delivering integrated waste, energy and transport networks - from efficiency savings and productivity gains for operators though to improved services for users. But optimising this joined-up approach requires greater sophistication in our ability to process, analyse and act upon complex data in real time.
Machines will be better than us at this – but that requires us to be able to write the control algorithms and understand the wider context for optimising infrastructure service delivery.
Developing roles such as network engineers and integrators
Perhaps we should not just consider ourselves as designers or contractors in isolated roles but also look at developing jobs such as ‘network engineers’ and ‘integrators’. With this shift in the perceived role of the engineer our engineering education and future skills pipeline would also need to adapt.
With the rise of computing power, automation and AI, we don’t need to develop engineers to repeat calculations from standard practice. We need to recruit and train them to collaborate with other sectors and exploit new technologies and skills.
We need to campaign for engineers who understand how to make technology work for the people and the wider environment that it impacts.
Technology has no ethics so we need broad and globally minded engineers to make optimal human decisions.
This is not a case for removing the infrastructure engineer. It’s a case of thinking about how best to apply our skills in very different scenarios.