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The fragility of many different industries – from hospitality to tourism – has been painfully exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But less widely reported has been the impacts on other industries, which have thrived under the pressure to innovate, such as those industries employing the skills of engineers.
So, if you’re interested in studying engineering, is a career in the industry still a solid bet? And what kinds of engineers might be particularly sought-after?
Professor David Morton, of Deakin University’s School of Engineering, says, fortunately, the engineering industry hasn’t seen the same level of job disruption as other industries have.
‘We don’t quite know what’s going to happen, but a lot of the local construction, energy and manufacturing jobs are in areas that are just not going to go away,’ Prof. Morton says.
These include infrastructure projects such as road or rail projects, which will create engineering roles of many types, including civil and environmental engineers.
‘These infrastructure projects are not ones where you can import the technology as such. It’s got to be homegrown,’ Prof. Morton says.
Or as one engineer at a recent conference he attended put it: ‘You can’t import a tunnel.’
Perhaps the biggest impact on engineering has been the realisation that Australia needs a reliable source of supply of many products and services – rather than depending on imports.
As supply chain problems hit across the world, and planes largely stopped flying, the ability to get things in and out of the country has been majorly impacted, Prof. Morton says.
‘In terms of manufacturing especially, what has become very clear is we need to be much more resilient in terms of having our own ability to produce things.’
CSL is one high-profile success story. ‘There’s been a lot of attention paid to CSL, and the fact that they’re here, and they’ve got world-leading ability to manufacture vaccines,’ Prof. Morton says.
Engineers are needed from start to finish on delivering a new vaccine, and even in finding enhanced delivery approaches such as spray alternatives to needles.
'In terms of manufacturing especially, what has become very clear is we need to be much more resilient in terms of having our own ability to produce things.'
Professor David Morton,
School of Engineering, Deakin University
In its 2020 budget, the federal government announced a $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy, stating engineering was a critical part of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
‘Certainly, the message coming out of both federal and state government is the fact that manufacturing is now a key priority, need and focal point for capabilities,’ Prof. Morton says.
The priorities include the manufacture of essential products such as food and beverages, pharmaceutical and medical products and recycling and energy, he says.
Prof. Morton says modern manufacturing is a highly digitised and smart process, requiring the skillsets of the contemporary engineer.
‘Really in manufacturing, engineers play a central role. Not all of the roles are called engineering but they’re people who make stuff, and make things work-and that’s a pretty good broad definition of an engineer.’
Advanced manufacturing and agriculture technology are two major areas of opportunity for engineers, says Prof. Morton.
‘Those areas are clearly of great interest to state and federal government – high quality food and nutrition products are our biggest manufacturing area, and we as a community are really good at it.’
For example, engineers will be needed to design and optimise agricultural systems, along with the infrastructure and technology behind processing and delivering the produce.
The dairy industry, technology and other related food and nutrition industries also need engineers.
So how have working arrangements changed during COVID-19 for engineers, and what does the future hold?
‘We’ve discovered that we can do a lot of work from home. It’s not ideal in all circumstances,’ Prof. Morton says.
‘I think if you’re on a manufacturing plant, obviously you can’t work from home for many critical operations. But we’ve been forced to learn that flexibility in working practices is actually a really good thing.’
In a time of uncertainty, agile engineers who are comfortable with change will be in high demand, predicts Prof. Morton.
A successful engineer of the future will have a range of skills, including professional skills, emotional intelligence and cultural awareness, he says.
‘The modern engineer needs to be adaptable, needs to be cognisant of multi-disciplinary skills and has to have a lot more of the professional skills – the communication, the problem solving, the multi-disciplinary spark to make things happen.’
While the industry has been shaken, Prof. Morton believes a career in the engineering industry will be more important than ever as Australia’s economy starts to recover.
‘I think engineering is going to increasingly be providing the solutions to getting out of such global crises and challenges,’ he says.
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