Attributes of Engineers and Engineering for the 21st Century World

The world’s leading businesses are global. Below, PE Seeram Ramakrishna argues that engineering education should be reformed to nurture ‘global engineers’ and ‘mass engineers’ for the 21st Century world.

21st Century World

During the past thirteen years the world saw economic expansion, financial crisis, and unrest in certain regions. The next 87 years will likely witness them repeating for varied reasons that include emerging geopolitical conditions, population growth, internal and external migrations, further urbanisation, competition for natural resources, changing climate and energy mixes of nations. Longevity coupled with improved healthcare and birth rates suggests that the active world population will rise, thereby leading to continued economic expansion. The number of centenarians will grow to 15 million from the current half a million. Future generations will be healthier, motivated and economically active for periods longer than the current generations upon formal tertiary education. In other words the economically active life span upon graduation will be in the range of 50 to 60 years. It is no longer unusual for people over 65 to be working full-time. Moreover the future generations are likely to experience rapid technological innovations that will shape living conditions and businesses.  Hence the education and skills they acquire at tertiary institutions are far more important than ever before. Environmentally friendly, autonomous transportation will be ubiquitous.  Air, water and soil are likely to become cleaner with greater attention to the cradle to grave cycle of manufactured products. Bio-factories for medicines, nutritious food, and environmentally benign products will become normal. Advances in technologies and pursuit of sustainable development will slant energy mixes of nations towards renewables and lower resource consumption per capita. Widening income inequalities are likely to erode social values. The proportion of single, two person, or three person families will increase around the world. As families become nuclear, future generations will rely on public systems (universities, community organisations, cultural organisations, welfare groups, religious organisations, etc.) to develop character and acquire social values, interpersonal and life skills, which were acquired naturally in respective family settings in the case of earlier generations. The world will be increasingly multi-polar with USA, EU, China, and India among the major geopolitical influencers. Innovation nodes will become globally distributed. The key differentiators of the competitiveness of nations are quality of education & depth of skills, scientific research capacity & new knowledge generated, and a conducive ecosystem to innovate products, services & governance.

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Attributes of Global Engineers and Mass Engineers

The world’s leading businesses are global. They integrate supply chain across the continents. They source finances and talents worldwide and customise products to the markets they serve as opposed to the past practice of standardised products made in one place and sold worldwide. This has been possible thanks to the availability of educated workforce, investments, and innovation capabilities in several regions of the world, globalisation of trade, finance and talents, and availability of modern transportation, information and communication technologies (ICT). They need engineers with strong communication skills, open to diverse approaches, and who can lead multicultural teams.  Such engineers are termed ‘global engineers’. However, most engineering graduates are employed by businesses and industries whose operations are local and regional. They need engineers with strong technical skills relevant to the local market and societal conditions, and connections to sustain and grow businesses. Perhaps we may choose to refer to them as ‘mass engineers’..What is common between the two types of engineers? They must be proficient in ICT skills as well as problem solving skills with real world experience. They need to be innovative, relevant, persistent, and life-long learners to keep their jobs in the 21st Century world.  Both will become engineer-leaders with experience and sustained achievements in respective ways.

The world’s leading businesses need engineers with strong communication skills, open to diverse approaches, and who can lead multicultural teams.

Engineering Education

Recent decades saw tremendous expansion of engineering enrollments in several countries. This led to a wide variety of engineering education providers, students, engineering disciplines, curriculums, pedagogic and delivery approaches. The unbridled expansion led to a) compromise in the quality, rigor and standards of education, b) graduates without jobs that fit their training and c) education unable to inspire students who seek personal fulfillment and motivated to contribute to the society. The real-world demands on engineering graduates and engineering education have drifted apart.  Engineering education should be reformed to nurture ‘global engineers’ and ‘mass engineers’ with the fore-mentioned skills and knowledge, which are necessary for their long careers in the 21st Century world. Transformation in engineering education is needed in order to enhance students’ interest, and to improve the relevance of engineering education to the respective societies. Hence there is need for developing a) thought leaderships in engineering education, b) relevant benchmarking and accreditation processes and indicators to enhance the quality and social impact, c) customised engineering education strategies appropriate for a particular country and region, and d) mentoring engineering educators, providers and stakeholders. This requires sharing of best practices and continual improvement in all aspects of engineering education.





Engineering Education Providers

Increasingly universities and engineering schools are pressured to enhance academic reputation and climb up the ranks in the national, regional and international league tables.  This is leading to isomorphism of institutions, and losing the sight of broader mission i.e. advancing social mobility and facilitating social engineering. Tertiary education providers should not just chase rankings as their social mission is larger than pure academic excellence. It is to be noted that top universities in the world league tables admit only a very small proportion of university students in respective countries. This is not the case for many universities around the world as they admit large numbers of students out of historical, social and nation building reasons.  It is time to recognise that students have different needs. Efforts should be aimed at developing each student to full potential. The 21st Century world needs university education to facilitate students’ disciplinary competence as well as social conscience and compassion. It is more important to differentiate education offerings, and continually improve the education quality by benchmarking with peers and aspirant institutions meaningfully.  Forecasting is often fraught, nevertheless a best attempt must be made as foresight enables engineering education providers to understand what they need to do now to better prepare for the future.  In the end how the future will pan out depends on what they do now.

About the Author

Prof Dr PE Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng, FNAE, FIES, FAAET is a writer & speaker on tertiary education & innovation trends at the meetings facilitated by the World Bank, OECD, EU, ASEAN, Governments, professional societies & associations, non-profits, and think-tanks around the world.  He leads the GEDC-IFEES Global Institute for Engineering Education Studies (GEES). He authored the book The Changing Face of Innovation.  He has served on the management boards of ~ 10 national & international organizations, and advices tertiary institutions & corporates around the world. He is recognised as a Highly Cited Materials Scientist.  He has authored 6 books and over 500 journal papers.



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