Engineering and Construction – dual skills needed for the future

By Annika Chapman, Research Executive

How much reliance should we place in technology? How much should we trust that machines will always ‘get it right’? Hollywood spends billions every year creating shock and awe scenarios on the subject. Here in the real world, the question centres on how we use digital technologies.

As we’ve found in recent research, the engineering and construction industries are ripe to reap the benefits of technological advances. Taking full advantage of such technologies could dramatically improve companies’ productivity, output and their bottom lines. As the world becomes ever more digital, it’s easy to get excited about the benefits to speed of work and productivity promised by digital technologies. But the often-ignored question is: How do we ensure we are up to the task of managing the implications?

New technologies, such as Machine Learning (algorithms that allow computer programs to learn) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), for example, are becoming increasingly powerful [1]. Able to synthesise and analyse data well in excess of the speed of humans, AI can learn from experiences and processes to make individual projects and whole industries, more efficient. But, what do we do when the machines outstrip the knowledge and abilities of their human masters?

The question becomes even more serious when we fully consider the skills base that some of these new technologies could replace. Such efficiency may soon render redundant simpler professional tasks, such as some of those performed by junior engineers or construction site managers. If so, we urgently need to consider how we equip upcoming engineers and construction technicians with the right competences, when a portion of their off, and on, the job training has become largely unnecessary for humans to complete [2].

Moreover, in the light of machine learning and rapid developments in AI, how do we maintain and keep the skills base of workers, so that they can step in to manually fix a situation which has gone wrong on a project?

Are traditional colleges and universities in the UK up to managing the task of educating students in such rapidly developing yet interdependent skills? Courses may need to enable students to learn traditional mechanically based skills which will be required if the machines go awry, in addition to the digital skills that may supersede them in day to day operations. The digital skills, too, may need to encompass two elements; one to cover the operation and utilisation of digital technologies, and the other to teach an understanding of the legal and security issues which regulate them. It may be necessary that the upcoming workforce have a complete duality in their education of traditional labour skills, as well as the advanced digital skills which will be needed to operate these technologies. Greater depth to multi-disciplinary qualifications and occupations, taking into account these complementary skills, could be the way forward.

Critically, behaviours with respect to continuous learning (CPD) will need to be enhanced to mandate a focus on everything that is being learned and developed by the machines. A crucial part of future work will be the need to keep up with the robots!

We need a new approach to training and development which is much more agile and flexible. The speed of change is not going to slow down, and individual technicians and engineers will not want to be outshone by their machines.

As much as there is to write about new forms of training in the sector, the ability to adapt to changes and remain agile in the workplace is perhaps the most critical skill to have in the future.

Huge changes are coming. Only the most agile and alert will survive.

 

[1] Institute of Civil Engineers (2017), Has digital’s impact on civil engineering really hit us yet? [Online] (Updated 31 July 2017), Available at: https://www.ice.org.uk/news-and-insight/the-civil-engineer/july-2017/has-digitals-impact-civil-engineering-really-hit
[2] Institution of Civil Engineers (2016) How artificial intelligence will reshape civil engineering [Online] (Updated 30 August 2016] Available at: https://www.ice.org.uk/news-and-insight/ice-thinks/infrastructure-transformation/how-artificial-intelligence-will-reshape-civil-eng

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