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Engineers must broaden skills to survive

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The civil engineers of the future will have to widen their range of expertise beyond traditional engineering skills, according to research carried out by New Civil Engineer and Bentley Systems

Civil engineers should be made to retrain and obtain new qualifications to prepare for future technologies, a report by New Civil Engineer in conjunction with software provider Bentley Systems has concluded.

They must also develop empathy as a core skill if they are to survive in a world where technology and machines can do everything that a traditional civil engineer would do.

Support for upskilling

There was overwhelming support for retraining and upskilling from the 100 civil engineers surveyed as part of the Readiness for Industry 4.0 report, which was officially launched at Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure conference last month. Forty two per cent of those questioned identified upskilling with new qualifications as the best route to take, with retraining on the job cited by 37%.

It comes after the World Economic Forum identified civil engineering as a discipline that is set to decline between now and 2022.

While 34% of respondents said their firm is developing competence in advanced data analytics, just 29% laid claim to their firm being at the stage of using it.

It is the same story when it comes to exploiting sensors and the Internet of Things. Thirty per cent of those polled said their firms are developing competence, but just 27% are using it at any level. And with artificial intelligence and machine learning readiness to use them is even lower, with 41% of respondents saying their firms are not even pursuing the technology, let alone trialling or developing it.

The report identifies the lead blocker as “a perception at corporate level that the return on investment is too uncertain”.

Failing to adapt

But skills gaps resulting from a failure to adopt new technology are also seen as significant, with more than a quarter of those polled citing lack of talent or expertise at workforce level as one of the biggest challenges to widespread adoption of technology.

The report ends by saying: “The clear conclusion so far is that it can no longer be acceptable that a qualification, once earned, is earned for life […] a cycle of reassessment and further learning is almost certain to become a requirement of the professional engineer going forward and it seems likely that awareness and understanding of how to exploit and work with technologies … will become a part of the requirement.

“There is also a major issue to address around initial education standards, and how to adapt to the next generation of engineers who have grown up as coders.”

The report also highlights the ongoing work by the ICE to address mid-peer reviews as set out in its In Plain Sight review launched in October.

The call for more empathy came from Bhupinder Singh, chief product officer at Bentley Systems. He was speaking to New Civil Engineer after the software provider revealed plans to further drive the use of analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to support decisions in engineering design, construction and operations.

It can no longer be acceptable that a qualification, once earned, is earned for life

Bentley used its annual Year in Infrastructure conference in London to launch iTwin Service, a cloud-based system that will unite a real-time physical model of an infrastructure asset through design, delivery and operation with all engineering data – with the intention that this rich data set can exploit emerging AI and mixed reality technologies to develop better designs, construction methodologies and maintenance strategies.

The advance again throws into question the future role of the engineer; something Singh was keen to explain.

“The industry is always going to need engineering professionals,” he asserted. “The magic will be maintaining relevance around smarter and smarter tools,” he said.

Engineers will either use the time created to engage in higher-level system-wide thinking or focus on engaging clients and end-users.

Medical profession analogy

Singh said there were analogies with the medical profession, where doctors, and particularly GPs, are being marginalised by advances in technology and AI in particular.

“If you or I suspected we had a disease or illness today the first thing we would do is go online and find out all we can,” he said. Google searches or equivalent will use AI to hone the search and provide increasingly targeted results.

“We then have to go and see a GP who may well know less.

“So the skill set for the GP is not any more how much they can memorise but how much they can empathise,” he said.

“It is a different skill. But the tools are evolving and society will place a higher value on empathy.”

Singh cited the growing trend in the US for colleges to offer programmes that link neuroscience, computer science, maths and music; linking “left brain” and “right brain” fields.

“US colleges are trying to come up with programmes that are deliberately left brain and right brain so that their graduates are more equipped to do the things we are talking about,” he said.

The pessimist in me worries that we get lazy; we become too confident in the machine and lose that skill of judgement

In the UK, Goldsmiths University of London runs a Music, Mind and Brain MSc which is highly interdisciplinary and draws on expertise from leading figures in music cognition, cognitive neuroscience, computational modelling, music education and music therapy.

Singh hopes others will follow suit.

“If we really want to be ready for the future, we need to be doing this stuff.”

Singh also warned that there will also always be a need for engineering judgement, and express concern that the skill could be lost.

“The pessimist in me worries that we get lazy; we become too confident in the machine and lose that skill of judgement; of intuition: the ‘that’s just the wrong size’ skill,” he said.

Bentley announced that it plans to accelerate its iTwin digital twin offer through a strategic partnership with global data management giant Atos.

Speaking at the conference, Atos chief technology officer Markus Schaffhauser said the marriage of Bentley’s software with his firm’s knowledge of how to use data would allow it deliver innovative services for infrastructure asset owners.

“Digital twins are about AI and enhancing opportunities to deliver better solutions. This is where we can bring our knowledge to the table,” he said.

Bentley Systems’ chief executive Greg Bentley said: “Our collaboration with Atos can help owner-operators really jump-start their ‘going digital’ ambitions, enabling and taking advantage of both immersive visualisation and analytical capability. Atos’ vast expertise in digital data integration, along with its global reach, makes it the ideal partner for digital twin cloud services.”

  • Click here to read the full report.


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