Nurturing 'T-shaped' engineers and 'M-shaped' talent

It is hard to predict the jobs of the future but it is clear that work itself is becoming more complex and abstract. The pace that technology is expanding knowledge makes industry increasingly reliant on newly emerging specialisms. As a result, the 'half-life of knowledge' is 3-5 years for some engineers which means that a  graduate will experience fifty per cent of what they learnt in college becoming obsolete in this time-frame. While the bad news is that skills life-cycles are therefore shorter, the good news is that the secret to surviving this is developing 'soft' skills that are our most essentially human. Bridging competencies, such as the ability to work well in teams, are what allows different technical expertise to combine effectively and prepares engineers well for the majority of future jobs; described as 'hybrid' i.e. they require a specific combination of these 'hard' and 'soft' skills.

Engineers, understandably, tend to concentrate on acquiring deep expertise in certain disciplines or systems with these vertical competencies, called “I-shaped’. However, as most jobs consist of multiple cross-cutting tasks, both technical and social factors overlap significantly. Getting complex work done to a high standard depends as much on skills like communication and creativity as it does technical knowledge. These 'T-shaped' skills work horizontally and join different subjects and knowledge sets and are often termed as either “transversal’ or ‘transferrable’ as they travel well across a wide range of projects and tasks. Developing this “T-shape” unlocks immense value by spanning boundaries, breaking down silo’s and increasing productivity.

The Engineering Skillnet develop ‘I-shaped” talent through targeting proficiencies that impact both technology and regulatory skills-readiness. For example, we focus on skills like listening, networking and coaching as these help better integrate technical knowledge and values for good contextual judgement. Who you know matters a great deal for knowledge creation as engineers gain disproportionately from peer-to-peer interaction and even, vicariously, from seeing others struggle with tasks. By introducing safe spaces for problem-based and ‘learning-by-doing’, participants are helped spot the connections that really count and boost self-efficacy and risk literacy.

Our core programmes embed ‘T-shaped’ skills development. Technical training, for example, is mainly delivered within small groups using mobile kits and simulating industry-real problems to show how ideas interact. Specific monthly, on-demand, courses such as in design thinking, creative problem-solving, technical writing/communication and team effectiveness also help to identify and address any 'transversal' skills gaps. The reality is that engineering talent needs to undertake continuous learning and be empowered to learn well digitally.

The OECD estimates that 54% of staff will need upskilling and reskilling by 2030 though only 48% of workers intend pursuing formal education. Yet technology now enables more cross-skilling opportunities that are flexible and self-directed to boost the most valuable ‘transversal’ skill of autonomous learning. Though skills cycles may be shorter, working lives are not with many workers likely to pursue second careers. These non-traditional workers and learners now joining the engineering ranks are welcome providing the necessary diversity of thinking needed for complex problem-solving. The Engineering Skillnet supports multi-tracked careers by opening up very accessible skills pathways with a number of entry points and with prior learning recognised.

'M-shaped' engineers are also becoming more common, for example, those from the 'hard' disciplines like mechanics who cross-skill into software and  automation controls. Developing strong expertise in more than one 'I-shaped' discipline is greatly facilitated by maintaining a good generalist outlook. A large part of what allows this transition is having a varied thinking toolkit and, hence, the ability to come at problem from different angles. Good learning design also support multi-skilling by clarifying what is fundamental to multiple subjects including a certain logic or methodology. The resulting ‘M-shaped’ engineers can then  offer a consistent and well-considered approach to improve systems and solutions. As a recent Harvard Business Review put it “when you work across a range of different jobs, you can see where they interact - and more significantly, where they should interact”.

As the nature of work itself continues to change, getting engineers into ‘T- and M-shape’ is a great source of competitive advantage for member companies. Technology and regulations are still evolving but at a different pace. Through identifying which ‘transversal’ skills are most business-critical and nurturing these, it is possible to get ahead of change and cope well with emergence. The Engineering Skillnet can help by introducing new thinking tools for teams and sparking ‘high impact’ learning that is both integrative and durable.

For more on the 7 “high impact learning that lasts” principles read our next Blog -

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