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What skills will civil engineers need in the future?

11 May 2020

With the pace of digital transformation within the construction industry increasing, we look at the skills civil engineers may need in the future in order to adapt to changing technologies.

What skills will civil engineers need in the future?
The future of work for civil engineers

There's no doubt that advances in technology are key to increasing productivity and enabling more sustainable ways of working. But has industry been too slow in taking advantage of this digital transformation? Do today's civil engineers possess the right skills to successfully enact that transformation or will a programme of retraining and refocusing be necessary?

In a recent ICE and Bluebeam survey which looked at digital transformation in the engineering and construction industry, 55% of respondents put the slow uptake of digital down to a lack of skills and expertise when it comes to implementing change.

So how much will digital transformation shape the skills that civil engineers need in the future?

President's Future Leader Holly Smith says that although digital transformation is necessary and already happening, it's not just about technology. "It's also about how we implement change using people," says Holly.

"How do we sustain and drive our accelerated journey to a digital future? The involuntary nature of having to adapt to remote working has removed the barriers but it's time to reflect upon where our personal digital skills limitations lie.

"For example, I feel that gaining coding skills would help me to automate my work and work more efficiently. Companies that truly want to be leaders in digital need to support upskilling in the digital space."

Prioritising digital solutions

In the construction industry, we know that the use of digital technlogy has increased with the use of apps and dashboards to summarise information and provide real-time access to live information. But equally, we know that organisations don't always prioritise efficient digital solutions.

Fellow President's Future Leader Hayley Jackson says the current health crisis has inadvertently focused engineers’ skills on remote working and technology. "Jobs that would have only been available to those able to work in an office or on site, may now be recognised as something which could be completed partially or fully from home," says Hayley.

"I believe this could be the leap the construction industry needs to become one that is perceived as more flexible, embracing technological advancements and therefore increasing the pool of professionals to undertake engineering roles by changing the way we work."

Hayley agrees that civil engineers will need to upskill their digital knowledge and adapt to digital interfaces seen within their day to day work but she also feels that the future will be a mix of traditional skills and emerging technology.

"A civil engineer's fundamental skills won't change," says Hayley. "The core principles will still apply but engineers will need to have the ability to familiarise themselves with changes in digital technology and will need to be able to learn the skills to review models and complete online documentation, as an example. There will be those with the more traditional engineering backgrounds, but then the industry will need to embrace those with an in-depth digital understanding to fully allow digital and technological growth in the industry."

Digital transformation

The National Digital Twin programme, delivered by the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG), is a key step in the digital transformation of the infrastructure and construction sectors.

Mark Enzer is Chair of both DTTG and the National Digital Twin Programme.

We haven’t yet grasped the opportunities that digital transformation will bring to our industry

Mark Enzer

“We haven’t yet grasped the opportunities that digital transformation will bring to our industry,” says Mark. “But by working together, these task groups are gaining momentum and moving at a pace. So I look forward to the relationship evolving as we take the industry to the next level of connectivity and integration.”

It's clear that digital technology within the industry is no longer a 'nice-to-have' and engineers will need to adapt.

A report by PSR Solutions who specialise in recruitment in the civil engineering sector, states that advances in technology are already influencing the construction process, paving the way for ‘smart’ building techniques. Building Information Modelling (BIM) is enabling engineers to create virtual models of their designs. Drones scan building sites meaning builders can analyze weak spots and collect high-resolution images to input into photogrammetry systems. And 3D printing allows civil engineers to tailor their designs to specific criteria and create custom designs and structures.

According to Andrew Watts, CEO of engineering technology firm Newtecnic, this trend is part of a new era of digital construction where robots and drones will become commonplace on site. “Drones will be equipped with hi-def cameras that feed data back to on site construction labs,” says Watts.

“There, 3D printers will be able to manufacture components based on the data, producing replacement parts for the building that perfectly fit the structure. It goes straight from the robot taking the 3D survey information to the software that’s going to make the component.”

KAFD Station, Riyadh Metro - Designed by Newtechnic, this approach combined the advantages of digital fabrication tools with traditional craftmanship to create an innovative facade system. Image credit: Newtechnic Design
KAFD Station, Riyadh Metro - Designed by Newtechnic, this approach combined the advantages of digital fabrication tools with traditional craftmanship to create an innovative facade system. Image credit: Newtechnic Design

James Chambers, director of Bluebeam UK, says that failure to adopt new technology will eventually affect companies' bottom line and slow productivity growth could affect profits.

In the joint ICE/Bluebeam survey on adapting to digital, 78% agreed that the industry has been too slow to adopt technology and 72% that it is not moving quickly enough into digital processes.

"As an industry, we have a huge opportunity to reap the rewards of digital transformation," says James. "Not only does it have the potential to increase our productivity, but it can give us better ways to meet the needs of our customers. We need digital innovators in positions of leadership in our firms. Those leaders must be able to drive forward digital implementation plans, effecting organisational change where necessary."

"Most of all, we need to properly invest – industry-wide – in training our workforce to develop the skills required to adapt to technological change."

  • Andrew Panos, digital content editor at ICE