Maria Rampa: Hello, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to the latest episode of Engineering Reimagined.
So many sectors around the world, including aviation, tourism, hospitality and retail have been hit extremely hard by COVID-19, leaving millions of people jobless.
Fortunately, many engineers were able to quickly adapt to digital ways of working, but some projects have been delayed or cancelled. As governments around the world begin to announce stimulus packages, the question is being asked, “How will these projects be delivered, particularly when visa and travel restrictions are prohibiting the flow of engineers between projects and countries?” And what role will engineers play in getting economies back up and running? Given engineers’ skills in finding solutions to complex problems, will they be the new rock stars of our post pandemic world?
Aurecon’s CEO for Australia and New Zealand, Louise Adams, speaks with Trish White, Board Director of Engineers Australia, about the opportunities for engineers and other professionals to pivot to different industries where their skills are required right now. What could this mean for the future of engineering careers and what skills might engineers need to prepare for in this new workforce?
But first, let’s go back to when Louise and Trish caught up, in November 2019, at the World Engineers Convention in Melbourne, when they talked about what inspired them both to go into engineering.
Louise Adams: How about for you, what got you into engineering?
Trish White: Two things. One's technology related, and the other was a role model. So, the first one was sewerage. I grew up in Brisbane, as a small child in the early 1970s, and if you wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you actually had to go outside in the dark, in the cold, to this little tiny shed, which was full of insects and all the rest of it. And I was terrified. I felt unsafe. Sewerage came, it changed my life. And I got it, it clicked for me, technology can change people's lives. The other thing that happened was this really wonderful woman engineer came to our high school. She was a chemical engineer, she talked about the wonders of the impact that she was having. And I thought she was the smartest person in the world and I wanted to be her. I ended up being an electrical electronic engineer, but the impact that engineering can have, that was what did it for me.
Louise Adams: So my granddad used to do a lot of traveling and take a lot of photos and he would put those photos onto slide and this is going back when I was quite little. So you can imagine the family would be in the living room and you take the tapestry off the wall, set the slide projector up, and we'd all sit there looking at his travel photos, and they'd start out with photos that everybody would want to see. And then slowly, he would just start to put photos of bridges up, and everybody else would leave. And it would just be him and I are looking at these photos. And he tells me that one time when I was about five, he was showing some photos of a river in Bangladesh, and it had these shanty houses underneath it. And I said to him, that I'd love to live under a bridge. And that would be really fun and really cool. And he said to me, that it flooded, the river would flood every year. And of course, these houses would be taken out in the floods, and then these people would have to come back and rebuild these houses. So it wasn't particularly fun to live under this bridge at all. And he said that I stood there and I looked at him and I said to him, what would I have to be to fix that? And he said, Well, you'd have to be a civil engineer. And at that point when I was five years old, apparently I told him well, then I'm going to be a civil engineer.
Maria Rampa: What great stories about how Louise and Trish were inspired to become engineers. And now, let’s join them as they catch up, some 8 months later, to talk about how the world has changed during that time and the impact this is having on the role of engineers in our society.
Louise Adams: So welcome Trish, it's great to be chatting to you again. And the last time we spoke was back in November and who would have thought that the world could change so much in such a short space of time? We certainly didn't predict quite where we were going to see the world go over the last few months. But in your role with Engineers Australia, you must have had a really interesting seat, looking at the critical discussions and decisions that have been made affecting so many organisations and people, not just in Australia, but possibly across the globe. How do you sum up your experience of COVID-19 so far?
Trish White: Exhausting. A bit of shock and sadness around the changes on both the human front of the pandemic and on the economic front for certain companies, but also very energised. A lot of companies in Australia have really stepped up to respond to the challenge.
Louise Adams: It's certainly been our experience in our organisation, just seeing that camaraderie and people coming together. The interesting thing, I think, for engineers, we've seen a lot of discussion, quite rightly, because it's a medical crisis that we’re in, the focus on epidemiologists and medical scientists. They seem to be the new rock stars in the current pandemic. But what about engineers? What role do you think engineers have been playing in helping organisations deal with this current crisis?
Trish White: In response to calls from the Federal government for manufacturers to pivot into helping respond to the health emergency with manufactured equipment, and in response to phone calls from people like myself, I haven't come across people who haven't been willing to assist. And companies have pivoted in the most amazing way from manufacturing goods in plastics to all of a sudden, getting involved in PPE equipment for our hospitals, designing and building ventilators in a matter of weeks. They've just stepped up and done what engineers are particularly good at, that is solving problems and making sure that their solutions work.
Louise Adams: And particularly solving problems in crisis when the pressures on, I think it's been phenomenal. Looking around at how quickly some of these achievements have come to bear, things that as an organisation or as a society, we might have thought would have taken months or years, we seem to have turned them over in a matter of weeks or months.
Trish White: Well, I think, everybody has had plans to go digital with their business. Some of their forward planning has almost sat on the drawing board for years. And all of a sudden, in a matter of weeks, people have just said, yep, now's the time, I'm going to do it.
Louise Adams: And you've touched on a few opportunities that extend into the future like the manufacturing and we've also seen governments both here in Australia, but also around the world talk about stimulus packages. I think it's really good news for our industry. So before COVID-19 we spoke about some of the resource challenges that engineering has faced for a very long time. So how do you think the industry is going to cope now in delivering projects, given that shortage already existed and the governments are talking about putting even more infrastructure into the pipeline?
Trish White: Look it’s a pressure for us, but we have to solve it. We just have to. In this country, two thirds of the engineers in the workforce are migrant engineers, so we graduate only half as many as we rely upon from overseas. Looking at the threat that that pose to our country, we acknowledge that, at any one time, an individual company might turn off that flow of engineers. But what we've had is a shock where every country's engineers have been denied to us for a little time to come. We don't know how long. It really heightens the problem that we have. And the way that the thinking is going in Australia that we have to get our heads around, is that we've got to do some sort of pivot training of those that we have inside our borders at the moment. Getting them up to speed so that they can pivot across into the industries that we need at this critical time.
Louise Adams: Yeah it almost puts a bit more pressure on us to make sure that nobody's left behind in those pivots, which is a positive, really puts pressure on industry and government to make sure that there is that upskilling of and that pivoting of skill sets across rather than moving from one area to the next, and perhaps reinventing a new workforce.
Trish White: Well, I think it also just highlights the fact that old perceptions of what an engineer is need to change. There's skills families, rather than skills. There's things that are close to engineering that we really have to recognise. And where are those people and how can we upskill those capacities? What can we put in place to really help those people see the future potential careers that they can have, and help them on that journey?
Louise Adams: Do you see that those digital technologies and the digital upskilling plays an important role in aiding that pivot and in helping, and you think that'll continue post pandemic?
Trish White: I do. I think, a lot of engineers are very familiar with the digital world. The shift for an engineer working from home on the sort of digital platform front, I don't think has been as large as it has for some in the community. But the digitisation of businesses is at the core of the whole fourth industrial revolution time that we are in. And what I think has changed and become apparent to people with this COVID experience is that how fundamental it is to business as usual, not just what you plan to do as a good add on into the future, but how crucial it is to doing business in the current environment. So I think a lot more focus on digital awareness and digital capability for everyone in the community. And engineers are at the front of that.
Louise Adams: I think that's a really good observation. And for a lot of organisations, they'll probably say that's been where they've fallen foul of reaching their digital aspirations in the past is because they probably have seen it as a bit of an add on, rather than just looking at well, how do we use digital technology to do everything that we do slightly differently and slightly better and slightly more efficiently? So huge opportunities there.
Trish White: And build different business models. I think that's the aha moment for a lot of companies. It's not just about automating what I used to do manually. There's a saying that if you digitise a broken thing, you get a digital broken thing. And I think that's very, very true. What companies are recognising, is this is a mechanism by which you can really change your interaction with your customer. You can really change your revenue stream formation. It's a whole new way of looking at what your business is about, who your customers are and what services or products you're providing.
Louise Adams: One of the concerns that I talk a lot with my leaders about is ensuring that when we see the light at the end of the tunnel and as these restrictions start to be lifted, and we start to get back to some sense of what new normal is that we all don't just sigh a huge sigh of relief and get back to doing things the way we always used to do it. I'm intrigued by how we have a, almost a once in a lifetime opportunity to take our businesses and in fact our society on some of that transformational journey. I think it's quite exciting but quite daunting to see where we might end up.
Trish White: Oh for sure.
Louise Adams: Have you heard of any really creative solutions where people are starting to look at how can we leverage some of those that have been impacted in other industries from underemployment and get them involved in helping to deliver these stimulus packages that we're going to see come out?
Trish White: The Australian Government's formula, it seems, at this time for recovery is an infrastructure led one. So we're going to need all those people that are able to pivot into the construction arena. The approach that the education system seems to be taking is development of short courses, micro credentials throughout the universities and the TAFE sector, but also looking at those professions that are very close to the engineering and others involved in the construction industry, and how do we get those people in large numbers across? I don't think I've seen really good responses to this yet. But that's the concentration that the education and training providers are turning their minds to right now.
Louise Adams: One of the other fascinating constructs that I think has come to the fore through this pandemic is the role of globalisation. And we've heard a lot of people talking about the vulnerability of global supply chains and our over reliance on these very complex intricate global supply chains but for the longer term, you know, I really strongly believe there needs to be a mix of both globalisation and then secure, localised economies. I think that with the complexity of some of the challenges facing the world, the role of globalisation as a means to have a common place where the world comes together, and we have unity, to fix some of those problems is still important. But what do you see is the difference, perhaps a different view of globalisation moving forward?
Trish White: So one of the things that has been a lesson out of COVID for our country is not having those backup tier two and tier threes to our supply chains is a problem, if you lose them, we felt that. But on the other hand, if you don't engage globally and have that connection, then there's this tendency to want to develop your own standards and way of doing thing, that puts us at a disadvantage in our global competitiveness. So we've really got to get the balance right, I agree with you Louise that we need a mix but the key is to understanding exactly what you're doing and what your dependencies and risks are. So that if there is a shock to your arrangement that you can pivot quickly. The other thing that is required is creativity. Engineers are often seen as very rules based or process based, but the real art of engineering lies in that creativity. So the capacity to challenge assumptions that are implicit in what already exists, challenge business models as well. And to use that creativity that is so essential to engineering to come up with better solutions, to determine what works by being willing to take those risks, to look broadly and globally, for potential solutions or keys to solutions and being agile enough with that creativity to pick up on what works and quickly pivot away from what doesn't. So, it also takes I think, for engineers, a little bit of courage, courage to influence those around them towards better solutions. I think engineers just have to have that courage when they can see a better way to put that forward with confidence based on evidence and their experience of what really will work.
Louise Adams: We've seen the government quite recently announce changes to the education funding for universities, really moving towards making it much more affordable for people to go and study STEM subjects and perhaps drifting away and making some of the humanities subjects a bit more expensive, which reflects the government's desire to get more people in STEM. But what are your thoughts on this as a long term impact of a policy?
Trish White: Engineers Australia certainly agrees with emphasis being put on STEM careers and study of STEM subjects. But for us, we think it requires a little more complex response than perhaps is on the table at the moment. Most engineers in this country that go through university study an engineering degree, but they also study another degree. And often that degree is not in the engineering gamut. So while the cost of their engineering degree will go down, that's not the case necessarily for the other part of their training.
Louise Adams: What did you miss the most during the during the lockdown during the few months of your home? What was the one thing you missed the most?
Trish White: I could tell you what I didn't miss. I didn't miss the endless travel and I've got a new view about doing less of that as we come out of this. I loved having my teenagers caught at home and having to actually have more conversations with their parents. I did miss from the workplace, those incidental conversations that just give you insights in your day. But I do miss that informal, casual, important human contact that you get through workplaces as you're walking the floor.
Louise Adams: It's certainly great to catch up with you and hear some of your wonderful insights about the role that engineers can play and have been playing and can continue to play in this world.
Trish White: Indeed. Always a pleasure, Louise.
Maria Rampa: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined. For many engineers, a linear career path is no longer the norm, as digital technologies continue to transform the industry and the way we work. So, what will be tomorrow’s in demand skills? Creativity will certainly be one of them. If you found this episode useful, tell your friends about it or leave a review in Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe to Engineering Reimagined on Spotify and Apple and other podcast apps. For updates and news about the podcast, follow Aurecon on social. Until next time – thanks for listening.