From education to industry, more students and professional engineers are embracing a mindset of self-directed and lifelong learning.

Future Ready with Digital Skills

Aug 9, 2021

by Jeff O'Heir

One of the worst global crises of the last century is yielding some of the best strategies in decades for closing the skills gap, improving education, and enhancing the skills and career development of engineers of all age groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth for engineers, with nearly 140,000 new jobs expected for engineers from 2016 to 2026. According to industry experts, that growth will be led partly by the use of digital technologies including artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, robotics, and virtual reality.
 
“The jobs are going to be changing very rapidly in the next five to 10 years. Given what we know about the evolution of skills and how that really creates gaps for the industry, we are trying to find a way to manage these changes in a practical way,” said Lisa Lang, the head of Learning and Education Americas at Siemens. “And with skills becoming obsolete before we know, it’s really important that employees are constantly developing and growing to remain relevant in the workforce.”
 
As the global pandemic put added pressure on industries that were already struggling to fill their ranks, engineering companies have been investing in training to bring their existing workforce up to speed. Over the last year, as workplaces became remote, online learning opportunities have helped in upskilling and reskilling the engineering workforce.
 
In March 2021, the editors of Mechanical Engineering convened with top educators and industry leaders for a four-part webinar series, titled “Engineering Education: The Future is Now” exploring which new skills will be taught to young engineers, what training mid-career engineers need in order to return to work as the pandemic subsides, and how much more can be done to confront the labor and skills gap in 2021 and beyond.
 
The conversations unearthed many lessons learned from dealing with the chaos, disruption, isolation, and frustration born from COVID 19. But those hard-won lessons, the experts warned, would be in vain unless all stakeholders work together toward implementing the changes needed to turn the best of them into reality.
 
Remote learning exposed the lack of equitable access many students had to broadband and the cloud, advanced software, and the portable devices needed to properly learn and work.
To get a good sense of the genesis, progress, and impact of those changes, it’s best to begin at higher education, where colleges and universities had to quickly pivot to remotely teach, nurture, graduate, and prepare students for an uncertain job market.
 
The job market will remain tough. But educators say the members of the COVID-19 Class have developed a resiliency, flexibility, and patience they haven’t seen in previous graduates. Those strengths, some say, will help those young engineers emerge as the next “greatest generation” since those who came of age during World War II.

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“The silver lining to this horrible dark cloud that we’ve been through is that these students will be magnificent,” said Sanjay Sarma, the Fred and Daniel Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and vice president for Open Learning at MIT. “They are forged in fire and going to come out as a mini greatest generation. We need to give them the tools and the opportunities to be that.”
 

Continued Learning

 
Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed that those tools weren’t always there for every student who needed them. Remote learning exposed the lack of equitable access many students had to broadband and the cloud, advanced software, and the portable devices needed to properly learn and work. The quarantine forced many institutions, as well as businesses, to do a better job providing those digital and physical resources.
 
Many schools recognized the importance of that access to digital tools and portable technologies after schools shut down.
“The students are more prepared to actually live and work the way that I am,” said Jeff Alderson, a product manager at MathWorks, a developer of mathematical computing software, who explained that many of the communication, collaboration, code sharing, modeling, simulation, and virtual lab tools many students now have access to are the same that are used in industry. “It’s good to have that sort of hands-on experience with the practices of their profession.”
 
Prior to the pandemic and worldwide lockdowns, some key engineering software developers had already developed innovative platforms that improved their online features and capabilities, which greatly helped students and professionals work remotely. Some developers, such as MathWorks, also began adding a plethora of new content, such as models, project examples, lectures, labs, and assessments, to improve the online learning experience, Alderson said.

Many schools recognized the importance of that access to digital tools and portable technologies after schools shut down. As a result, schools like the University of Colorado Boulder are investing in more digitized tools and portable gear, said Daria Kotys-Schwartz, director of CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “This year has pushed all of us to think in completely different ways about the way we’re educating,” she said.
 
The growth in engineering jobs in future will be led partly by the use of digital technologies including artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, robotics, and virtual reality.
Another outcome of learning and working remotely is that more students and professional engineers have embraced self-directed learning at levels not seen before, Kotys-Schwartz and others said. This practice represents an important trend since lifelong, self-directed learning is one of the best ways for engineers of all levels to close skills gaps, learn new technologies, and advance more quickly in their studies and careers. The benefits are especially relevant since many companies plan to retain at least partial work-from-home programs as they watch the course of the pandemic.
 
“You have to embrace a mindset of lifelong learning to stay abreast of these new technologies in your profession,” Alderson said. “Every company that you go to in industry is using special types of tools. Online learning is giving you an eye into that. As a lifelong learner you have to take advantage of those things.”

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“There’s an equilibrium that occurs between self-directed learning as well as your employers-directed learning and, of course, you need to do what your employer requires in terms of table stakes training based on your state or jurisdiction, but I think it’s a combination,” said Arin Ceglia, ASME’s director of learning and development. There is a large spectrum of available ways to attain skills—everything from additional advanced degrees to micro credentials, which are very common and popular at the moment, as well as training in specific topic areas, she said.
 

Showcasing Talent


But a lot of that work will be wasted unless the projects and skills that result from in-class and self-directed learning are saved and electronically archived (using YouTube, electronic portfolios, GitHub, share files and other tools) for sharing with prospective employers or current managers to win jobs, advance in the workplace, and close skills gaps. That practice becomes more important as internships and other jobs remain remote. 
 
“One thing that’s really changing engineering education is that the artifacts of learning don’t stay on your computer,” Alderson said. “You should be able to hit the ground running in industry with files and functions and models that you’ve used in your academic career. It’s really important to take that stuff with you.”
 
A well-managed and robust portfolio will also help candidates prove to recruiters and others they can be productive in a remote environment. “Recruiters are going to want to understand how you adapt to that environment, not how you fell prey to it,” said Rob Feinstein, a veteran of the online recruiting industry and author of Launched: Start Your Career Right After College, Even During a Pandemic.
 
Despite all of the advances in technology, every piece of content in a job candidate’s online portfolio should strive to answer three old-school questions that almost every recruiter or manager wants to know: Do you have the skills and experience to do the job? Do you have the interest and passion? Do you have the personality or attitude to get it done?

“Employers are well aware of what everybody’s going through. On the other hand, employers still have needs,” said Michael Powell, director of the career assistance center at the University of Texas at Austin. “Everything they’re looking at on your resume, every question they ask you is designed to answer those three questions. That’s what it all comes down to.”
 
Recruiters understand that many in-person internships and entry-level engineering jobs have been put on hold. But they are still looking for students who managed to build need skills—especially in leadership and team building—during the pandemic. Those experiences could include running a virtual club or working as a residence assistant. Gaining and documenting those skills and achievements will grow increasingly important as the “gig” economy, fueled by freelance and contract workers, continues to grow as large companies refrain from hiring full-time employees.
 

Communication Breakdown


Students and professional engineers might have developed greater resiliency and flexibility during the pandemic, but many still have trouble communicating with multi-generational colleagues of different levels in the workplace. It’s always been a problem and something that has held back engineers in their careers.
 
“Many engineers aren’t good communicators and don’t try to be,” said Michael Horodniceanu, a professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. “The people at the higher levels are able to address a topic in a very succinct and clear fashion, and that’s not the strength of engineers. The ability to communicate creates trust. Trust is the ultimate thing that engineers must realize that they need.”
 
The isolation and lack of in-person contact during quarantine, experts say, have exacerbated the issue. Some schools and companies see an urgent need to address the problem before cross-disciplinary teams are called back to the workplace to work on the same projects. The communication breakdown, experts say, affects engineers of all ages and career stages.

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Virtual meetings have replaced the conference room, and the limited time available to collaborate means engineers, project managers, sales, and directors all need to communicate quicker and more efficiently.
 
“It’s important to recognize that engineers don’t necessarily speak the same language as business folks or marketers or finance people,” said ASME’s Ceglia. “In order to be a successful mid-career engineer, you really need to be able to communicate with all of the different folks that you’re going to engage with.”
 
Weak communication skills are something companies have to address early during the on-boarding process, Kotys-Schwartz said. Companies should also offer ongoing training in communications and other soft skills, which is needed more today than ever before, experts said.
 
“It’s one of the areas we’re finding to be the most difficult to coach in this environment,” Kotys-Schwartz said, adding that students also have to learn how to sit still in small environments like the boardroom, communicate effectively via email, and carry on a telephone conversation. “No matter how hard I try in their senior year, I cannot replicate what it is going to be like working in different types of industries and environments. Our students need soft and professional skills and will continue to need coaching and development in them, because we don’t know for sure how they’re doing in that realm this year.”

Stuck in the Middle

 
Before the pandemic, engineers were in strong demand across industries. But that changed for some as companies were forced to lay off workers or postpone promotions and other types of advancement. While most of the previously mentioned tips and strategies also apply to mid-career engineers, here are a few aimed specifically at those who are a bit more vulnerable to layoffs during difficult times. Of course, all engineers looking to advance should practice them.
 
The most important qualities a mid-career engineer can display are flexibility and versatility. “Raising your hand” to take on a new assignment is among the best ways to prove that. Hyleme George, associate vice president of innovation and strategy at Black & Veatch, an engineering firm based in Overland Park, Kans., said those enthusiastic, willing engineers are the employees his company values the most, especially if they can apply a variety of past skills to a new project, business unit, or market. 
 
“Those are the ones that are valuable to us. They give us a chance to take an individual and move him or her around the company,” he said. “It helps us do a better job as of balancing the talent we have with the demand that we have from our clients and our projects.”
 
NYU’s Horodniceanu has always been big on raising his hand whenever a new opportunity was presented. That enthusiasm helps explain his varied career, which includes working in transportation, executive management, and in government and private enterprise.
 
“You have to be willing to compromise. You have to be willing to do certain things that are not the norm,” he said. “You have to be willing to change when needed and tackle the issues that you have never tackled before. That is going to make you a very worthwhile employee.”

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Today, there are more ways than ever to attain the skills and experience an organization needs to fill its vacant positions. It often takes just a bit extra drive or initiative on the part of an ambitious employee to take advantage of those options. But it can be done… during a pandemic and long after it has ended.
 
“What’s most important to the mid-career engineers is to always be committed to lifelong learning, whether it’s formal or informal training,” Ceglia said. “We always learn by exploring new topic areas and grow as a result. It makes us more versatile.”
 
Adopting an agile learning mindset is essential for the engineering workforce. As companies implement new digital engineering technologies, engineers will need to continuously reskill and upskill to be future ready.
 
Jeff O’Heir is a science and technology writer based in Huntington, N.Y.

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