Bridging the structural skills gap
Alongside digitalisation and the internet of things, the skills gap has been one of the most widely discussed and impactful topics in the worldwide engineering industry in recent years. Its severity continues to escalate, particularly in construction and structural engineering. Here, Sam Carigliano, CEO of cloud based structural engineering software provider SkyCiv, explores how we can build a better tomorrow for industry.
For more than five years, the engineering skills gap has been one of the key challenges for industry to overcome and it is construction and structural engineering currently bearing the brunt of it. Factors, such as aging workforces, growing populations and industrial developments are driving significant demand in the sector, which exacerbates the effects of the shortage.
Australia exemplifies this dilemma. In its report for quarter four 2014, specialist recruitment agency Hays identified that Australia was lacking in “super skilled” workers — notably structural engineers and building cost planners.
Three years later, Hays’ quarter two 2017 report identified civil engineers as being in “massive demand” in the country’s growing building construction industry. The report itself identifies the problem with meeting this demand, citing an issue in “the sheer volume of urban work and shortage of people with the relevant subdivision experience”.
Yet it is the UK that is one of the countries where this skills gap is hitting hardest. The 2016 Hays Global Skills Index report revealed that the UK’s engineering skills shortage had worsened for five consecutive years, which highlights the extent of the problem — particularly when you consider that construction alone accounts for six per cent of UK annual GDP.
A “seriously debilitated” industry
At around the same time that Hays’ 2016 index report was published, so too was a report sponsored by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The report, authored by construction consultant Mark Farmer, provided a stark, and frankly bleak, overview of the state of UK construction.
The report identified that the construction industry was at a critical crossroads, where it will struggle to deliver economically if it failed to take advantage of industry trends. In Farmer’s own words, “If the opportunities are not harnessed, the risks may become overwhelming… if action is not taken quickly, [the industry] will become seriously debilitated.”
While this may paint a bleak picture of the future of construction and structural engineering, it is important to remember that even Farmer acknowledges there is still time to resolve these issues before they impact the sector too heavily.
But, what can be done to tackle this ongoing skills shortage? As a structural engineering software provider that works closely with students, educational organisations and businesses of all sizes, SkyCiv has observed areas that can be improved. Many of these relate to the growing digitalisation of the sector, both for education and practice.
Students and young engineers
According to US labour market analysis, 24% of civil engineers are aged 55 and above. This aging workforce in the construction, civil and structural engineering industries is not US-specific; the Farmer report stated that it is “acute in UK construction” and projected that there may be a “20–25% decline in the available labour force within a decade.”
With many experienced structural engineers nearing retirement, young engineers are beginning to take on more responsibility in the workplace. With little experience, they may feel overwhelmed by the pressure and high standards expected in the profession. Likewise, there is a growing need for engineering students to maximise their employability in the sector.
Critically, young structural engineers can improve their prospects by networking effectively, getting hands on experience with multiple structural analysis programs and actively pursuing projects outside of study.
Although networking has been a valuable tool for many years, younger engineers are now armed with social media platforms such as LinkedIn, allowing them to network more effectively than previous generations. They can also very easily take digital copies of their CVs with them to send across to potential employers.
Likewise, structural engineers should actively find an industry niche that interests them most, as projects can range from urban building to offshore rigging. Students can discover this by experimenting with different projects and hobbies in their spare time.
Young structural engineers should also ensure they are familiar with a variety of general and niche structural software packages to be prepared for whatever software a company is using. The problem is that, because many traditional software programs require expensive licenses and costly hardware, they’ve historically been inaccessible to students and those new to the industry.
Fortunately, recent developments in cloud computing mean that there is software that can be accessed on a cheaper subscription model, such as SkyCiv’s structural engineering software, using nothing but a web browser on a variety of devices. This makes it accessible to budget-conscious students outside of learning hours.
Aristotle famously stated that “our children hold our future in their hands”. Effective education is critical to ensuring that those hands are safe, so it is essential that institutions are up to date with the latest structural engineering methodology and regulations. It is then a matter of sharing this knowledge effectively.
For example, structural analysis software that can provide detailed material analysis and accurate testing is essential for modern construction and engineering. Educational institutions must therefore have access to recent versions of this software to ensure that students are designing to relevant regulatory standards.
The challenge here comes from budgetary constraints. Many countries have seen educational budgets reduced in the years since the great recession, which leads institutions to minimise expenses by using legacy software. As regulations and practices change, outdated software impacts the quality of education.
Similarly, there is an inevitable learning curve associated with software that, with the current rate of technological change, means teachers are seldom experts in multiple pieces of software. Educational institutions must address any shortcomings in teacher proficiency by working closely with software providers to develop effective training plans.
The same applies to construction companies with internal training and apprenticeship schemes, who should try to invest in analysis software that is both effective and intuitive. While many businesses consider the former, the latter is often overlooked.
This is often due to a misconception that millennials — the generation that many budding structural engineers now entering the sector will fall into — are instinctively better with technology.
According to US STEM education charity Change The Equation, this is not true. In 2013, the organisation analysed the results of a survey and found that almost 60% of millennials have low technology skills. Therefore, there is still a requirement for software to be intuitive and not have a cluttered or overly-complicated interface.
The skills gap will undoubtedly dominate discussion in the engineering sector for the remainder of the decade, with a significant overhaul of education and business practices required to truly resolve it.
Such an overhaul is only realistic by taking steps in the right direction now, such as bridging the gaps in analysis and design software expertise. With the right tools and partnerships in place, educational institutions and young engineers themselves can help to build a better future for the construction industry.
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