Future of engineering turns to human skills

From civil to geotechnical, every field of engineering is being transformed by new technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. But it’s not all about robots. It’s the ‘human skills’ and lateral thinking needed to design, build and manage the AI that is in huge demand.


Keeping pace with advances in engineering has become increasingly difficult for many organisations, particularly as technology is evolving so rapidly. 

Yet through collaborative research teams and strong connections to global and local organisations, RMIT is leading its graduates to the forefront. 

“I think one of the really important roles of research is to make sure that the academic staff are constantly looking at what is the next frontier, and are actually contributing to pushing the frontier forward,” says Arnan Mitchell, director of RMIT’s Micro Nano Research Facility and distinguished professor, School of Engineering.

“When I'm teaching, I often give anecdotes,  and then put them into context with some research work that we're doing right now. We're also trying as much as possible to do research work in close partnership with industries, so that it’s not only current but remains regionally relevant.”

Arnan Mitchell, director of RMIT’s Micro Nano Research Facility and professor, School of Engineering

Demand for quality engineering education has attracted many international students to RMIT, particularly students from China and India. Manufacturing sectors in both countries are strong, especially in China where the government’s ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure initiative relies on engineering professionals. 

Australia’s established resource sector is also a big drawcard for graduates, says Dr Lucy Lunevich, RMIT engineering lecturer. “Australia attracts many talented individuals from neighbouring countries because the Australian market is highly sophisticated,” she says.

“Australia also has one of the best resource sectors. So the resource sector is mining, oil, gas and minerals and of course liquid natural gas. Not every country in the world has a diverse resource sector like the one in Australia.”

Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran (centre) and Senator Zed Seselja (right) with researchers and project partners at the Micro Nano Research Facility. Photo: Mark Dadswell, Sleeptite
Students building a model tower together Civil Engineering students bridging the gap between theory and practice, with project-based learning, problem-solving and teamwork skills.

Major technology developments such as the 3D-printer have dramatically altered the way engineers design and work, allowing for more efficient and innovative prototyping and production methods for engineers and researchers around the world. But it is important to know how to apply these advancements to industry. 

“Rather than having to do detailed engineering drawings and simulations before you would really commit to doing that one realisation of it, you can actually now realise prototypes and learn from them quite quickly; and learn things that you may not have learnt from simulations alone,” says Prof Mitchell.

“For example, manufacturing microchips is outrageously expensive, but it's becoming possible to do something a little bit like 3D printing with these integrated circuits. So we're sort of learning from the way people are engaging with industry, to try and actually do the same thing with integrated circuits.”

While graduates need technical skills to land a job as an engineer, more focus is now also placed on the development of human skills. Sometimes known as soft or professional skills, these include leadership, teamwork, communication, problem-solving, work ethic, flexibility and interpersonal skills. 

The latest job vacancy data from the Australian Government’s Department of Jobs and Small Business points to a gap in these crucial skills. The department reports that 80 per cent of qualified applicants are not considered suitable for roles owing to a lack of employability skills and experience.

Dr Nick Brown, who co-ordinates RMIT’s Introduction to Professional Engineering Practice, says human skills enable engineers to work effectively and harmoniously in any field. Yet many prospective students equate associate engineering with hard or technical skills and little else.

“Engineering is synonymous with technical skills, so students don’t realise they will still be working in an environment where you need a breadth of professional skills to work effectively and to apply your technical skills,” he said.

“Otherwise what’s the point of having a good idea in your head if you can’t communicate it to someone else?”

In the Introduction to Professional Engineering Practice, students work in teams on real-world problems. Honing their human skills helps them become well-rounded engineering professionals, Dr Brown says.

“It’s no longer the case that one person has all of the design in their head and goes through the whole design process by themselves,” he said. 

“Engineers work with other people, and for that they need to be able to communicate their ideas and work in teams. Graduate recruiters are looking for that cultural fit, those interpersonal and critical analysis skills, that show graduates are capable of going beyond the basic technical stuff.”

Through teaching and emphasising these human skills, RMIT’s engineering programs are today preparing the students of today to take on the latest in cutting-edge advancements of tomorrow.    

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