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Comment | Kick out the old jobs, bring in the new

Mark Hansford

Lots of excitement has inevitably surrounded chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget and the plethora of reports, strategies and deals that have been published in the weeks following, all largely focused on tackling Britain’s “productivity” challenge.

The engineering industry has largely welcomed it all, largely because the general thrust has been that investing in the right kind of infrastructure is the answer: that by having better road and rail links the nation will collectively work harder in the making of stuff, and that once made, this stuff can get its way to market quicker. “Digital” infrastructure has been a particularly positive thing to talk about – whether that be investing in 5G telecoms networks or paving the way for autonomous vehicles (for purposes unclear).

But what has been missing from the post-Budget debate and discussions has been the other digital – digital delivery. And it is surprising (or not surprising, depending on your view of the profession) how few people seem to be taking it, and its ramifications, seriously.

Back in June New Civil Engineer’s special report on the Rise of the Machines highlighted the rising threat – yes, threat – posed to the industry as we know it by machine learning, artificial intelligence and the automation of the construction process. But seemingly few believed it, or wished to believe it.

smart cover

smart cover

Since then we have heard more on this. Mace has warned that 600,000 construction jobs could be replaced by technology over the next 20 years; its report Industry 4.0 made the front page of the Daily Telegraph, but few in the industry are talking about it. Perhaps because the view of the average professional was that “those are unskilled jobs, surely?”

But it really is far less about automation of construction and far more about machine learning. Expedition Engineering director and ICE vice president Ed McCann is on top of this, telling our NCE100 Club last month, quite plainly, that “an awful lot of what our people do is going to go.”

McCann is a big advocate of the thinking of Richard Susskind, lawyer and author of The Future of the Professions, a seminal book that challenges the role of humans in professional activities in the future.

As it happens, Susskind spoke at a New Civil Engineer TechFest fringe event back in October, and his thoughts, and the responses of the senior business-leader audience, are published in this month’s edition.

He had a stark warning for any engineer that believes they are immune from the advancing power of computing: “That determined view that machines do the routine work underestimates the processing power of technology,” he stated. “Machines are outperforming us, but doing it in a different way”

Susskind warned that the 2020s would be a crucial decade of re-employment, of engineers developing systems to replace our own ways of working, replacing themselves, in fact. But that leads to an almost bigger question: if we are not going to be doing what we are currently doing, what will we be doing, and what skills do we need to do it?

We already know the skills we are teaching are wrong. Aecom director Peter Ayres was People’s choice winner at the 2017 British Construction Industry Awards for the remarkable Halley VI Antarctic research station in October. When he spoke to another NCE100 Club he was clear: “Everything I was taught at university can now be done by a small black box,” he said. The skills he now needs to employ are not being taught at uni. He needs coders, gamers, thinkers.

But as Imperial College London chair in systems integration Jennifer White told the Susskind debate, it can be difficult to get “cutting edge” digital skills into the university syllabus. She said she “thought it would be a no brainer” but that the reality is anything but.

McCann is currently working on a major skills review for the ICE. It reports in April, and could – should – have some fundamental proposals for how to change what we teach future engineers. So forget the Budget – the big story in 2018 is skills.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • but surely the fundamentals of engineering shall not be neglected?

    I agree that with computers getting more and more powerful, we don't manually produce deliverables that we were taught in the industry (for example; bending moment diagrams, calculations, etc.) as we can run the analyses computers (saves time and likely to reduce human errors).

    However, if this is the path that we are going to, wouldn't the theories and technical understanding that we have developed over hundreds of years might be lost in few generations? As a young engineer in the industry, I learnt a lot from my seniors who have been in the industry for decades, as they do not rely on the computers to run their analyses or design their structures. What happens then when we (or the generation after us) starts to rely more and more on computers and at the end of the day we lose the fundamental knowledge of engineering?

    I guess there needs to be a good balance between technology and fundamentals, knowing how to code but also understanding the mathematics behind what we are doing and progressing with technology but at the same time not forgetting the core engineering knowledge in our designs.

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