4 Cornerstone Skills Engineers Need for the Future of Work

What skills do engineers need to lead the job market in 2020 and beyond?

The job market has changed a lot in the past decade, and today it’s changing faster than ever. With the growing influence of the impending fourth industrial revolution, new disruptive technologies will continue to alter the employment landscape—especially for the engineers at the epicenter of this shift.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning, cloud-based and quantum computing, additive manufacturing and nanofabrication, advanced automation and robotics—these disruptive technologies are already impacting every industry. Although concerns about job loss due to automation are not without merit, these technologies are also poised to open up entire new fields of study and employment never before conceived.

As many as seven million jobs across the US could disappear over the next decade, according to research by Nick Van Dam, global chief learning officer at McKinsey & Co. These positions will be replaced by significantly fewer jobs requiring more highly skilled workers. According to one technology funding organization surveyed in a Pew Internet report: “The jobs of the future will not need large numbers of workers with a fixed set of skills—most things that we can train large numbers of workers for, we will also be able to train computers to do better.” The already technical positions in engineering-related fields are both the most likely to see changes, and to continue requiring new candidates within existing and emerging fields.

Many of the jobs in 2020 and beyond will be in fields and technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago as anything more than a spark in someone’s imagination.  Autonomous transportation specialist, technology advocate, augmented reality developer, or human-technology integration specialist; these are just a few of the possible future careers that are just beginning to emerge and will be widely available in the decade to come.

“This is the best time for people who have the right skills and right education, because there are tremendous opportunities,” said Nick Van Dam, global chief learning officer at McKinsey & Co.  “It’s also the worst time in history for people with ordinary skills and education.”

Devin Fidler, research director at the Institute for the Future, also predicted, “As basic automation and machine learning move toward becoming commodities, uniquely human skills will become more valuable.”

The World Economic Forum found there are 10 critical job skills that will be in demand for the future job market of Industry 4.0.  Four of these skills will be particularly relevant to the high-tech economy:

  1. Complex Problem Solving
  2. Critical Thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management.

Luckily, these are skills essential to being a great engineer, so now is the time to polish them up so that you will be ready for the future of work.

Complex Problem Solving

Problem solving is the core of engineering: find a problem, break it down to understand it, and then apply existing knowledge to create a system, device or process that solves it. This makes problem solving the most important ability engineers will need for their future career.

Through education and experience, engineers learn how to approach and solve many different kinds of problems.

These include:

Fixing Something that is Broken

Engineers frequently take something that is broken, damaged or flawed, and not only determine why it failed in the first place, but also figure out how to repair or redesign it to avoid the same problems in the future.

Examining and Addressing Risk and Safety

A core precept of all engineering disciplines is a responsibility for public safety when designing and building.  When it comes to problem solving, engineers examine past trends and perform root cause analyses in order to anticipate and prevent future failures, or at least mitigate their impact.

Improving Performance and Efficiency

The design and manufacturing that goes into every process and piece of equipment is part of a web of relationships and influence that means a change in one aspect of a system can affect countless others.  Engineers consider and understand every aspect of a situation or process in order to introduce efficiencies, whether that means saving weight on an aerospace structural component or shaving half a second off a machine’s cycle time.

As McKinsey describes it, “The hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work (18 percent). These activities, often characterized as knowledge work, can be as varied as coding software, creating menus, or writing promotional materials. For now, computers do an excellent job with very well-defined activities, such as optimizing trucking routes, but humans still need to determine the proper goals, interpret results, or provide common-sense checks for solutions.” 

These are all components of problem-solving, which means engineers with good problem-solving skills will be in a strong position for leadership and innovation in the future of work.

Complex Problems Will Need Complex Solutions

The engineering jobs of the future will need people who can identify problems and design fixes for the existing public infrastructure, manufacturing equipment and other systems which will continue to need maintenance and repairs to avoid failures.  But beyond merely fixing the old, these engineers will be responsible for designing and building entirely new things—autonomous traffic management, smart factories and Internet of Things (IoT) enabled systems.

Engineers with advanced problem-solving skills will be needed for assessing the risks and rewards of new technology and its effect on cities, people and the environment.  That’s not to mention all the new problems that will arise from the integration of new technology into existing businesses and processes.

Ethics will take on even greater importance, as more people will be exposed to, involved with and affected by technology than ever before, and it is the job of the engineer to keep these people safe.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing a concept or situation with the aim of reaching valid, sound and objective conclusions.  Strong critical thinking skills take practice, as it’s easy to make decisions “uncritically” based on one’s own interests, biases and emotions, rather than the facts.

Engineers are taught to be critical thinkers, not only to solve technical problems but to ensure the ethical performance of their duties.  The key components of critical thinking for engineers are to:

  • Ask questions to gather relevant information
  • Identify biases and minimize their influence
  • Evaluate all available data relevant to the situation or problem
  • Ask for feedback and collaborate with those involved in the situations, including people with different backgrounds, perspectives and knowledge specialties
  • Generate a variety of possible solutions and determine the optimal implementation, given the desired consequences

This approach to interacting with a problem ensures that the engineer has all the information about a problem that they need in order to solve it.  Most companies, projects and teams that engineers are involved with include a wide variety of people and their abilities, and engineers with good critical thinking skills are able to take in all the disparate information from team members, and understand both the individual technical details, as well as the overall big picture. 

When it comes to narrowing down to one solution out of many, engineers’ critical thinking skills enable them to analyze each potential solution in order to determine which is the ethical and effective choice.

Think Outside the Box—Before You Know What the Box Is

How do you solve a problem you’ve never seen before?  The future will be full of these problems; each new change and new technology will create situations no one has ever anticipated. Critical thinking will be what enables engineers to learn about and understand these problems so they can apply their renowned problem-solving skills.

Changes to the workplace will also increase the need for skilled critical thinkers.  Traditionally, the workplace involved experienced individuals with one specialty working in one domain, and somewhere down the line everything would be brought together into a final product—one which most of the people working on it might not even see. 

In the future, workplaces are expected to be more collaborative. Diverse teams will collaborate to tackle all aspects of an entire problem, with each of them bringing their own set of skills to the table.  Engineers will need to be able to think critically when working in this kind of team in order to take in all team member’s contributions and analyze them to develop the best solution.

“As an employer, critical thinking is the No. 1 skill I want in a job candidate. I need employees who can evaluate problems and develop solutions quickly, without constant supervision and direction. Such an employee is much more valuable to my company than someone who can’t operate independently, someone who (like a machine) relies on established rules and processes,” writes Ernie Bray, a Six Sigma Black Belt and leader of ACD.


Since their work often revolves around numbers and facts, engineers are often mistaken to be lacking creativity. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Creativity is the ability to make, invent or produce something new, rather than imitating something that already exists.  Yes, often times engineers are building off something else, but the creative label still applies as they look for new methods and processes to solve problems cheaper, faster and better. 

Engineers are exceptionally creative, and this creativity is the reason engineers dream up innovations and solutions to all kinds of problems.  They are the ones to ask, “What if?” and truly come up with something that has never been seen before.

Employers value creativity because creative people are the flexible thinkers who can not only find new solutions for new problems, but new ways to motivate, new opportunities for business operations and relationships, anticipate what customers will want to know before the questions is asked, and be willing to pursue independent or additional education and training.

It’s a given that the most successful engineers are also the most creative, and while having a solid grasp on your core technical skills is of course necessary, it is creativity that enables engineers to apply all this knowledge in new and exciting ways.

“The skills needed to succeed in today’s world and the future are curiosity, creativity, taking initiative, multi-disciplinary thinking and empathy. These skills, interestingly, are the skills specific to human beings that machines and robots cannot do, and you can be taught to strengthen these skills through education. I look forward to seeing innovative live and online programs that can teach these at scale,” stated Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards.

Adapting and Innovating in Creative New Ways

So, what will make creativity such a valuable skill for future engineering jobs?

With all the changes to technology, society and individuals that we can already see coming, as well as those we haven’t yet anticipated, creativity will be the key as engineers will have to not only respond to the existing problems, but also to think “outside the box” and identify new problems before they arise. 

Machines may take over the number crunching and technical drawing, the data analysis and the tedious, repetitive tasks—but they will not be able to think creatively in the same way as a human.

The new industrial revolution will bring a ton of new technology, new products and new ways of working, so creativity will be an essential skill to be able to see the best ways to use all these assets, and to adapt to each new technological change.

“The most important skill is a meta-skill: the ability to adapt to changes,” stated Carlton Pu, professor and junior chair in software at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  “As the rate of technological innovation intensifies, the workforce of the future will need to adapt to new technology and new markets.  The people who can adapt the best (and fastest) will win.  This view means that any given set of skills will become obsolete quickly as innovations change the various economic sectors: precision agriculture, manufacturing 4.0, precision medicine, just to name a few.”

People Management and Emotional Intelligence

There’s a common misconception that if you’re an engineer, then you aren’t a “people person,” but being able to work for, with and in charge of others is a trait shared by every successful engineer.

Teamwork is often the focus of this job skill, since the most engineering projects and workplaces involve collaboration with other people. While the has been some movement towards remote and decentralized employment, as evidenced by the gig economy and digital meeting spaces, the bulk of engineering work still involves face-to-face human interaction.

Engineers not only work closely with their own co-workers and teammates, they must also be able to easily work with engineers and non-technical staff from other companies and organizations. Those who excel at managing people are better positioned to take on leadership roles and oversee entire projects or companies, keeping all their employees working together like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

The fact that engineers are excellent collaborators means that, when combined with their technical knowledge, engineers will be the ideal choice to lead the future workforce.

The Human Touch is Still Required

Teams and projects in the future engineering workplace are likely to have far fewer people and many more machines, which will make personnel management and coordination skills all the more vital.  Teams of a few people will oversee a collection of AIs, smart or autonomous robots and data analysis software systems, the inter-personal coordination will be overseen by these human team leaders.

A human touch will still be needed for things like leadership, deliberation and debate, conflict resolution and ethical considerations for decision making. “Skills of writing, speaking and making videos are important, but fundamental skills of critical thinking, community building, teamwork, deliberation and dialogue, and conflict resolution will be powerful,” said Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. “A mindset of persistence and the necessary passion to succeed are also critical.”

Human team leaders and managers also have the ability to motivate and inspire others—something that’s difficult to envision an AI doing—even a charming one.

“The skills necessary at the higher echelons will include especially the ability to efficiently network, manage public relations, display intercultural sensitivity, marketing and generally [what is called] ‘emotional intelligence’,” said Simon Gottschalk, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The trend for remote and decentralized work is also expected to continue, meaning the personal touch will be even more important as you need to manage teams who could be located anywhere in the world, with much of the interaction occurring digitally.  At least until we have picture-perfect, true-to-life digital avatar in a virtual meeting space, a human’s emotional intelligence will still be needed to parse out body language, tone, context and subtext of communication through video and written text.

“The most important skills to have in life are gained through interpersonal experiences,” writes Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen.  “These skills are imperative to focus on, as the future is in danger of losing these skillsets from the workforce.  Many people have gained these skills without any kind of formal schooling, but with the growing emphasis on virtual and digital mediums of production, education and commerce, people will have less and less exposure to other humans in person and other human perspectives.”

Engineers with strong people management skills will also be essential to the need for technical training that will rise along with the increase in technology being used in the workplace and across the country.  Employees will need to be trained to use AIs and machine learning software, technicians and line workers will need to learn to maintain and repair robots and other forms of automation.

They will also be essential to integration of new technologies and helping companies and their employees to get over the hesitation and uncertainty that often comes along with technological change. Since engineers understand both the technical elements and the effects, as well as the human factors involved, they can explain both how the new tech works and how it will benefit the company and its employees in the long term.

Polish Up on Your Future Skills

Let’s assume you’re not retiring tomorrow.  That being the case, you will want to make sure you’re as employable as possible for the new economy.

The key will be ensuring you have the right skills that will be in high demand over the next 10 to 20 years.  Most of these are “soft skills,” which may not be the first thing that comes to mind in connection with engineering.  However, engineers have a highly developed roster of these soft skills; and more importantly, these skills will be what sets you apart from the crowd, and will be what you can offer that a robot, for example, can not.

So, if you know already have these skills, polish them up.  If you don’t think you’re quite up to par, consider getting ahead of the pack by finding opportunities through your current job, or through a professional development program, to get these skills into top shape.

For more on the engineering workforce, check out these stories:

Engineering and the Gig Economy

5 Skills Hiring Managers Look for in Engineering Grads

Winning Strategies to Land that Great Engineering Job