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AECOM discusses the future of engineering in a great podcast

AECOM discusses the future of engineering in a great podcast

 March 15, 2024

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The AECOM Talking Infrastructure podcast has featured an insightful episode called Engineer of the Future: Building Tomorrow’s Workforce.

From emotional intelligence to AI, this energizing discussion dives deep into the core skills that may be required in the future.

In this episode, podcast host and AECOM Director of Marketing & Communications, James Banks, is joined by CEO of Northern Ireland Water, Dr Sara Venning, Chief Executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Dr Alice Bunn, and AECOM’s Energy Lead for Europe & India, Eloise John.

Together, they discuss what the engineer of the future might look like and delve into the ways they can remain agile in an industry where future job roles are yet unknown.

AECOM engineer of the future

Solving the world's most pressing challenges

From achieving net zero to accelerating the energy transition, engineers will be critical to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. But what skills will they need? And how can the industry encourage, upskill and attract them?

Gone are the days of working in silos. Engineering is now about interdisciplinary collaboration, engaging with diverse groups and integrating advanced technologies.

Topics discussed in the podcast include:

  • The changing role of the engineer
  • Emerging trends engineers should be aware of and prepare for
  • How to keep pace with technological change including AI
  • Why storytelling is becoming an increasingly important skill
  • Working together to build more diverse teams

This episode isn’t just for engineers, it’s relevant to anyone looking to embrace new approaches in their work.

Importance of communication skills

AECOM podcast James Banks

James introduces the episode by addressing the skills of the future, and discusses the advice the panelists would give to somebody at the start of their career, with one skill that they would tell them or advise them to develop.

"To start with, the basics don't change. So concentrate on that. But actually, the added value piece around storytelling, how you communicate and how you get people to understand that. Engineering and engineers are the future and will create a better world for us. So getting that connection between people and ideas will be the piece," adds Eloise.

"So all in all the storytelling elements of how we go about doing and delivering our projects and working with our clients. So bringing people along, telling the narrative that goes with it and ensuring people see the benefits," says Eloise.

"My focus again was on people skills, of getting the best from people and working collaboratively with them, playing to the strengths of others. So it's really not all just about engineers. It's how you can get the best from everybody around you. And my last little trivial tip is for anybody starting, learn how to touch type. Your life will be so much quicker and much more productive if you can touch type as opposed to one finger type," explains Sara.

"You use communications in so many different ways, in ways that you wouldn't imagine at the beginning of your career. So, for instance, in my old job, I spent a lot of time working with the European Space Agency, and that's 22 countries coming together. You're having meetings in four different languages. Everything is being transcribed as you speak, and you sit behind a microphone. It's quite daunting, actually. And if you can get beyond that, you're going to be much more effective at communicating your point. So I think it's really important," shares Alice.

AECOM podcast Dr Alice Bunn

People skills and learning from others

The conversation then delves deeper into communication skills, and whether these skills were advised to the panel when they were starting off in their careers.

"When I started out my career, I naively thought everybody thought like I did, and the company I first worked for set me on a course called Understanding Self and Others, and it was a massive light bulb for me. I had no idea that not everybody was like me and I had to learn how to work with other people. I'm very fortunate that I managed to do that at that point in my career, and that's navigated me really well throughout," says Eloise.

"I think from my perspective and my early career, I thought the biggest skill and the best was to be the most technical that I could be, that would be the greatest achievement. I do wish someone had said to me, actually, take a step back. That won't be what drives you forward, and it won't be what helps you get the most done. So being a great people person, making others feel comfortable," comments Sara.

"So engineers think that they're problem solvers, and they have to solve all the problems. But actually, now today, what is more important is how. You don't have to solve them all. You have people to work with a whole range of people, and you'll get a much better solution. So I definitely didn't start out with that advice, and it is good advice," adds Sara.

AECOM podcast Dr Sara Venning

Moving into a blended world of net zero and AI

James then navigates the discussion towards net zero and AI, and how this will enable levelling up within organizations and countries as a whole.

"Net zero is one example to enable levelling up to provide energy security to the country as a whole. It's a huge burden to carry, and you roll into that. Some of the aspects around AI, just sitting there and knowing the basics of the chemistry or how the electrons move, it's not good enough anymore. You need to be carbon literate, you need to be bringing in people to the conversation that enables you to look at the challenge that you're trying to solve in a slightly different way to maybe how you would have done five, 10, 15 years ago," explains Eloise.

"If we think back to early careers, it was a very structured world. It was very rural based. There were prescribed parts and there was probably a prescribed pace. And that has all changed. So it's much more free flowing now. I think our disciplines are blending, and we have to learn from each other, and even if I think about my world where I started in electricity, I've moved into the water utility and the world of civil engineers. But when we are talking about net zero generation, energy from waste, it is all very much blending. And I think the complexity comes because for us all with very structured and organized mind, we have to deal with a whole lot more chaos now," shares Sara.

Life long learning throughout careers

James highlights the roles that organizations play in meeting the challenges of the future, and the key factors that companies must pay attention to when developing the next generation.

"There's a statistic. I can't remember where it comes from, but let's go with it. It is said that 85 per cent of the jobs that we will do in 2030 are unknown today. But it is also true that 80 per cent of the workforce that will be in place in 2030 is already in place today. Right. So you just wrap your head around that and think, wow, that really hammers home the argument for the need to be constantly upskilling, re-skilling through our careers," says Alice.

"I think it's equally important that we need to be developing in our careers as well. And that is indeed where the institution of mechanical engineering can help you very much indeed, because it is about that lifelong learning. It's about that ability to network, ability to share best practice with your peers," adds Alice.

Investing in young talent

Organizations are making moves to level up when it comes to the skills and the people they are employing across the world. The panelists discuss how they are embracing new ways of harnessing talent and skills in their employees, and the people they are hiring.

"50 per cent of the young people from those disadvantaged backgrounds can leave school with no qualifications. And we are the closing ourselves off to those people id we ask for prescribed formal qualifications. So one of the things that we looked at and because we're headquartered here, edges on a very deprived conflict, was a conflict area in Northern Ireland until we've dropped the requirement for a GCSE miles on our entry level, apprenticeship program, and we're bringing people in. We've been targeting recruitment and areas of social deprivation, unemployment blackspots, maybe rural areas to widen our pool," says Sara.

"We've been thinking about how is it that we can give opportunities to people regardless of their social background. So if you come and work for us, we'll put you through and you're driving test so then we can give you a van. Then you're mobile. The ability to come in to gain qualifications and progress through, and that's an important strategy that we have deployed and that sort of grow our own as opposed to go looking for the ready made talent, but we're seeing some success with that."

Developing new skills within engineering

Eloise explains how AECOM is investing and connecting with its colleagues in India, and how crucial it is to develop and recognize new skills within engineering.

"So I'm quite proud that this year we've invested in our first computational designer. In our business, we wouldn't have done that a year or two ago. We have now, and we've got a second joining shortly. That's a massive step forward for us, recognizing the need to have that skill within our traditional engineering business," shares Eloise. "India is producing a nation of electrical engineers. It's a career of choice and that is giving us a capacity that we can't access necessarily right now in the UK. The apprenticeship route is really helping us specifically with a non-nuclear team. We talked about growing, growing your own and in that sector, in particular, there's a missing generation gap of workforce when nuclear wasn't so popular and wasn't understood to the extent it's understood now. And so, it's been an ability for us to create a team of people that we wouldn't have had access to otherwise."

AECOM podcast Eloise John

Taking advantage of career opportunities

James discusses what it means to take advantage of the opportunities that come along at the very early stages of a career, with the panelists sharing how learning is completely paramount. Alongside mentoring throughout careers, they highlight that having a diverse pool of people to bounce ideas off is incredibly important, as well as being surrounded by people who see life through a different lens.

Sara adds that although engineering is important, the behavior of people is something that also needs to be understood and harnessed in order to create a better future for all.

"Engineering is important, but understanding behavior is equally as important. So we have some really smart, talented people. We need to use less. We need to use a whole lot less water right across Northern Ireland. We're using about 165 litres of water per person. And across the UK, you're trying to get down to 140 litres of water per person. In Australia, 100 litres of water per person would be too much. So we're wasteful of water and we need to reduce consumption. And that is psychology and that is behavior, and that's not purely can be driven just by engineering solutions," comments Sara.

Impactful career advice

The podcast comes to a conclusion with the panelists sharing a key piece of career advice in terms of preparing for the future, and that would inspire somebody at the beginning, middle or end of their career.

"I think the key takeaway is lifelong learning. The world is changing. It's happening all the time. The pace of change is accelerating. What's going to equip you for that is to put on your seat belt and be prepared for change, for lifelong learning, embrace those as opportunities," shares Alice.

"I do feel every day is a school day. I learn something new all the time. I'm never doing the same thing. So be open to learning and to new experiences. You can do more than you think. So don't close yourself off," adds Sara.

Access the podcast here.

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