Net zero requires shift in engineering skills

27 December 2023
President of the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET), Gopi Katragadda, discusses the findings of the organisation’s Green Skills Survey

Creating a net-zero world requires new and innovative engineering solutions that cost-effectively produce clean, renewable energy, while simultaneously limiting consumption so that the energy and resources that are produced are not wasted. 

To understand the skillsets that engineers of the future will need, the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET) has conducted its Green Skills Survey.

The survey has revealed significant differences in engineering skills in different regions, with a particular focus on the perspectives and preparedness levels in the GCC. IET president, Gopi Katragadda, explains the key findings of the survey.

1. What are the key skills that the IET Green Skills Survey identified as being essential for engineers when it comes to combating climate change? 

A wide range of skills have been identified for engineers working to deliver sustainability strategies, lower their organisation’s environmental impact, develop solutions or technologies for environmental sustainability and adapt to greener processes. These include specialist environmental skills, technical engineering skills and softer skills such as complex problem solving and whole-systems thinking.

This demonstrates the need for engineers to develop a well-rounded skillset to ensure they have the skills to be resilient and adapt to new challenges such as climate change. Systems thinking, in particular, delivers many benefits for engineering and encourages skills development in several areas, including:

  • Holistic problem-solving: Systems thinking encourages holistic problem-solving approaches. Instead of addressing the symptoms of a problem, it focuses on identifying and addressing the root causes, which often lie in the interactions between different parts of the system.
  • Big-picture perspective: This involves looking beyond individual components or processes to understand the bigger picture. It includes understanding how engineering decisions impact market needs, revenues, profits, and even broader societal and environmental issues.
  • Cross-disciplinary integration: Systems thinking in engineering often requires integrating knowledge from several disciplines, such as combining engineering principles with environmental science, economics and social sciences to create solutions that are sustainable, profitable and socially responsible.
2. How does the IET plan to address the skills gaps highlighted by the survey, particularly in terms of agility and resilience? 

As an organisation, the IET is working to develop its learning and development offering to best meet the needs of engineers working in different disciplines, including sustainability. Outside of our own products and services, we want to raise the profile of engineers and engineering at events such as the UN climate summit Cop28, to highlight to governments and industry the work that needs to be undertaken to ensure engineers develop the skills that are needed.

Engineers are at the forefront of climate change, developing and implementing technologies and solutions, and it is vital that they continue to develop and learn new skills.

3. What are the most significant differences you have observed in the engineering skills landscape across the different regions that are covered in the survey – Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas? 

It is clear from the research that the areas that have been less directly affected by climate change – in Europe, especially – show a lower level of concern about its impacts on their businesses compared to other regions. This was reflected in their feelings about their engineering employees’ agility levels and skills for resilience.

We saw companies in China recording higher levels of confidence in the skills of their employees for lowering their environmental impact, developing solutions for environmental sustainability and adapting to new technologies than in any other countries.

4. How do the IET's findings in the UAE and Oman compare to global trends in engineering skills? 

The Oman survey, conducted earlier in 2023, demonstrates similarities in respondents’ views about their education system, with the majority of countries here agreeing that their higher education system prepares candidates well for entering the industry – including Oman, this figure was at least 64 per cent.

In fact, it was only the UK that differed from this opinion in the most recent survey, with just 35 per cent of respondents saying they think the education system prepares young people well.

Conversely, the UAE findings in our 2022 survey were similar to those of the UK, with over 60 per cent of respondents saying that young people do not have the necessary skills they need for work in the engineering industry.

When asked how technology and engineering education at a university level needs to improve to provide more high-quality candidates for industry, nearly every country’s top three most selected answers included collaboration of some kind with industry, including in the UAE and Oman.

5. What role do leadership and problem-solving skills play in meeting the challenges of climate change in engineering? 

A lack of strategic leadership skills was a common barrier identified by countries in their ability to meet net zero. Leadership and management skills to enact change, however, were not particularly seen as a skills gap in other areas, such as delivering sustainability strategies or meeting business priorities.

Solving complex problems was a skill that was particularly identified by Saudi Arabia when looking to meet its business priorities. Problem solving also appeared as a common skill that respondents need for their organisation to become more resilient to climate change.

The Oman and UAE surveys also found leadership and problem solving among the top four skills that employers think graduates need to make a positive impact in their organisation over the next 5-10 years.

As climate challenges become more complex, skills such as these will be important for engineers in order to find and develop new solutions.

6. How does the IET intend to support new industry entrants in developing the necessary skills to contribute effectively to climate change solutions? 

This is an area that the IET is passionate about. In the UK, we operate an industry and academia programme called the Power Academy, where students are offered placements within industry in summer breaks and encouraged in their studies to potentially be placed on graduate programmes within those companies when they finish education. Feedback from industry is always very positive, as it allows them to start developing the skills of graduates before they enter the workplace.

We would like to continue our research into this challenging area to facilitate more collaboration between industry and academia, not just in the UK but internationally as well.

7. What technologies are seen as most critical to achieving net-zero targets, according to the survey? 

The technologies identified by respondents in every country surveyed as being the most important to their country’s efforts to meet net zero were ones that exist and are available today. This included renewable energy generation, new buildings and construction, and the heating and cooling of buildings. Many respondents also consider that they have the skills within their countries for these technologies.

The areas where they do not think their country has the necessary skills were in more nascent technologies, such as zero-emissions aviation, nuclear fusion and green hydrogen production. We were pleased to see that it is the existing technologies that are considered more important and skilled, as this should enable a quicker growth in these areas.

It is also important, however, to consider the skills that will be needed to manage the harder challenges, which is why skills such as problem solving, whole-systems thinking and innovative thinking are becoming so important. Understanding the benefits of systems thinking will also help to solve these challenges faster, with further benefits including sustainability and resilience, by considering the long-term environmental impact of engineering projects, including resource use, energy efficiency and waste management.

It is also important to understand the dynamic nature of systems, which are often complex, with changes in one part of a system having unexpected effects on other parts. In engineering, a change in a component can affect the product's performance, market acceptance and even environmental impact. Engineers with these skills will be better placed to solve the complex challenges ahead.

8. What strategies does the IET recommend for closing the identified skills gaps in the engineering sector? 

The IET has recommended that sustainability and environmental content and themes be included across engineering training, both within companies and throughout education, in order to start building the skills seen as the most important. We also encourage companies to consider soft skills to be as important as technical ones for building resilience.

Closer collaboration between higher or further education and the engineering industry will also be key to providing a pipeline of graduates with the skills that companies need.

9. How does the IET expect engineering education and training to change in the future?

For countries to continue to build home-grown engineering talent to meet future requirements, industry and governments will need to work with schools to ensure children experience hands-on practical learning from a young age in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects to encourage creativity, imagination and problem-solving.

We need to open young people’s eyes and minds to the world of engineering at a much younger age. Not only do we need them to understand what engineering is, we want them to see that if they apply the Stem skills that they learn in the classroom on a practical level, they can improve the world for everyone.

It is also vital that we support employable graduates, aligning courses to future industry needs. It is critical that employers and educators work together to shape the skills pipeline for their industry.

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