Future of engineering: skills and safety for an evolving sector - RSA Blog - RSA

Future of engineering: skills and safety for an evolving sector


  • Manufacturing and materials
  • Work and employment

Safety in engineering is vital and introducing new technologies to protect workers is important in supporting the future of the profession. Here, researchers Fabian Wallace Stephens and Emma Morgante discuss milestones in a related project and discuss upcoming engagement opportunities.

The future of engineering is dependent on the safe adoption of emerging technologies. During 2023, we’ll be continuing our partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the University of York’s Assuring Autonomy International Programme to identify the skills required to put this tech in place and ensure a safe, future-proofed engineering industry. We’ll also explore how actors in the engineering skills system can deliver a diverse range of learners and workers who can develop these skills and thrive in the future of work.

Engineers will shape and respond to the future of work

The future of work will involve a series of major societal transitions, including the digitisation of the economy and the shift to net zero. Engineers will play a critical role in facilitating these shifts, from computer programmers to wind-turbine manufacturers. But as jobs are created, transformed, and eliminated, these workers will need to develop new skills to remain relevant. For example, the largest occupation across UK industries that we have previously identified as likely to be significantly transformed is that of engineering professionals. For example, the largest occupation across UK industries that we previously identified as likely to be significantly transformed, including energy production and fossil fuel processing, vehicle manufacturing and heavy industries such as cement and steel by net zero, is engineering professionals.

Largest engineering and other occupation groupings in selected industries that will be impacted by decarbonisation.

(chart above shows RSA analysis of Annual Population Survey and UK Engineering Footprint)

Workers in engineering sectors such as manufacturing and construction also include tradespeople, mechanics, metal workers and process operatives.  These roles are important in ensuring the safety and security of production processes, products and services, critical infrastructure, and the natural environment. However, these workers have different skills, qualifications and educational backgrounds and some may be less well positioned to benefit from technological change. For example, according to our analysis of automation risk, sheet metal workers, welding trades, plastics and rubber process operatives, are occupations at much higher risk of automation than engineering professionals, programmers, software developers, civil engineers, quality assurance and regulatory professionals.

Safe adoption of emerging technologies

In its Future of Jobs Report 2020, the World Economic Forum identified a growing demand for roles that are relevant to engineering, such as data analysts, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning specialists, robotics engineers and new emerging roles such as process automation specialists, information security analysts and internet of things (IoT) specialists.

While many studies and industry skills frameworks outline the digital skills needed for businesses to adopt these technologies, there is often less of a focus on what skills are needed for thei safe adoption. In some contexts, safety may be considered a condition related to the absence of accidents, losses, etc. In addition, Hollnagel et al define safety (Safety-II) as the ability to succeed by performance variability and adaptation under expected and unexpected conditions. Furthermore, safety can also be thought of as the antonym of risk, where ‘safe’ can be considered a condition or situation characterised by an acceptable risk.

The adoption of emerging technologies will also bring new opportunities and challenges for safety. We are defining emerging technologies broadly as novel technology which has considerable potential ‘impact on the socio-economic domains’, the precise character of which is still uncertain. IoT is being used in wearable devices to detect hazardous conditions such as toxic gasses or warn of worker over-exertion. For example, SmartCap tracks brainwaves using electroencephalography to monitor worker fatigue. IoT is seen as a key technology to increase the efficiency of many processes including production and logistics. However, it creates huge potential risks around cybersecurity, and can be used for undue surveillance and workplace monitoring.

Safety technology that protects people and planet

Meanwhile, robots can also be used to carry out tasks in hazardous environments, thus protecting the human workers they are replacing. These environments might include those involving radioactive waste, being under water, or where there is a fire hazard, or indeed on the site of an incident at a nuclear power station. Robotic systems in the past needed to be kept separate from humans because of their ability to injure people working alongside them. With new technologies such as IoT and AI, human-machine collaboration is becoming physically safer, but fatal accidents still happen. All-new digital technologies can also have associated environmental risks, relating for example to the sourcing of rare metals and minerals used to create them – or e-waste management. While new fuel sources such as hydrogen have the potential to drastically reduce emissions, including in hard-to-abate sectors such as steel production and aviation, the fuel is more volatile and will require additional monitoring to prevent explosions.

Of course, the safe adoption of emerging technologies will require the skills needed to deploy and work alongside these technologies. These include digital skills, such as hardware development or software programming. There will be changing needs in terms of technical skills, including design, development and testing. These emerging technologies will impact what safety skills are needed, which might include those needed to monitor, manage, and address safety risks, and green skills around environmental monitoring and impact analysis to ensure the safety of the environment. Not tied to a specific technology, are the transferrable skills needed as the more prevalent use of technologies impact the way engineering projects might be designed and delivered. These include systems thinking, rational and ethical decision-making.

The global skills shortage

Skills shortages are not new to the engineering sector. According to the Recruitment Employment Confederation Jobs Outlook Engineering, technical functions have been consistently voted by UK employers as among the top three most challenging to fill.

The shortages of appropriately skilled workers are the result of various factors, including strong competition for skilled candidates, shortage of applicants with appropriate qualifications, and a lack of awareness of the educational routes into engineering. Challenges with diversity are also longstanding in the industry and worse in the UK than other parts of Europe. While the share of women employed as engineering professionals has increased in recent years, fewer than one in six of these roles is filled by women.

As part of our research we are considering the global context, where the context of skills shortages is varied. For example, some Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries have a more readily available engineering workforce, with James Dyson suggesting his business ‘can fill all of its engineering vacancies in Singapore and Malaysia but struggles to fill positions in the United Kingdom’. While a recent report on The Southern African Development Community countries highlights unique challenges facing the region. The increase in demand for engineers for infrastructure projects has led to a proliferation of tertiary education institutions offering engineering qualifications. The extreme growth in students has in turn created a context of ‘inadequate resourcing and critical shortage of academics’.

Join us for an interactive workshop with engineering employers, learning providers, and engineering bodies where we will explore key trends impacting the skills for safe adoption of emerging technologies. We will closely at the skills that might be in demand, how they might impact organisational needs, and the innovations helping learners and organisations adapt to these changing needs.

Attend the Future engineering skills lab

Participate in our workshop exploring key future trends, co-designing job roles and skills that engineering will need.

What are the most significant challenges the engineering sector will need to overcome to ensure the future of work for its employees is a safe one? Let us know in the comments below.

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