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Future Skills week: How the 'holistic engineer' can bridge the skills gap

Jennifer Johnson, additional material by Joseph Flaig

'We're starting to miss that holistic engineer, the one that can tackle unfamiliar problems' (Stock image credit: © Rolls-Royce PLC)
'We're starting to miss that holistic engineer, the one that can tackle unfamiliar problems' (Stock image credit: © Rolls-Royce PLC)

The global challenges of tomorrow will be solved by engineers – but what skills will they need to tackle them?

We're answering that question with Future Skills week. Starting today (13 September) and running until Friday, the online series will explore the techniques, approaches and mindsets that engineers should adopt to stay ahead in the field. Look out for four expert case studies from people who are already putting these vital skills into practice. 

First up, here's why an over-emphasis on specific technical competencies – rather than a broader, more holistic approach – could serve to widen the skills gap. 


Simply producing ever-greater numbers of engineers won’t single-handedly solve a skills shortage in the long term. Individual countries, and regions within them, face a variety of engineering capability challenges, which are unique to their respective economic and educational circumstances. The Global Engineering Capability Review – a report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation – highlighted a widespread need for “higher quality engineers”. These are individuals whose skills have been honed through a combination of formal education, training and professional development. 

Early this year, the UK government released its Skills for Jobs white paper, a blueprint for reforms to post-16 technical education designed to boost national productivity. The document notes that there is a “significant shortage” of technician-level STEM skills in the UK, and attributes it to “a lack of people leaving education with high-quality technical skills over the last 20 years”. To remedy this, the Department for Education suggests that employers should have a hand in designing “almost all” technical further education courses by the end of the decade. 

However, an over-emphasis on specific technical competencies, rather than broader critical thinking or problem-solving abilities, could also be detrimental to the engineering workforce. This is especially true in an era of rapid technological change and automation.

Holistic approach needed

Professor Mohamed Abdel-Maguid, dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Social Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University, recommends that educators focus on equipping students with transferable abilities, as opposed to transient skills. The latter can be acquired through practice, he explains, while the former constitute “transformations in the person” so that they can consistently deliver desired outcomes and create impact. 

“If you go back in history, the focus was on enduring and transferable skills – and transient skills were picked up,” he says. “Then, after the standardisation of the Industrial Revolution, the focus moved away from this holistic approach and towards specific, siloed jobs. We’re starting to miss that holistic engineer, the one that can tackle unfamiliar problems.” 

Effectively tackling future engineering challenges will mean knowing how to manipulate the tools of the day. In the past, engineers were perhaps required to know how to use a press or a specialised drill. But, as many manual tasks become automated, humans will have to use their creative and critical thinking skills to add value in other areas. Programming languages, rather than physical materials, are the key building blocks of Industry 4.0.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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