Monday 11 November 2013

Engineering offers vast degree of opportunity

By Tan Pheng Hock, Published The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2013

THE future of engineering has been on my mind a lot recently.

In part, it's because I happen to have re-read Professor Cham Tao Soon's book One Career, Many Choices, which traces the careers of the first 557 engineering graduates of Singapore's Nanyang Technological Institute in 1985.

That engineering can launch a wide span of career possibilities may sound self-evident. But I don't think today's university entrants fully understand just how versatile a career platform engineering is.

If they did, they would be lining up in droves for a place at engineering schools.

Engineers are taught to build solutions in chaotic conditions where the available data may not be perfect. In essence, they are problem solvers. Engineers possess a framework from which to grow and thrive in a wide range of real world situations.

As a society, Singapore has changed - and will continue to change - at a rapid pace. The Internet, social media and new technologies are altering our lives and the way we interact with the world. These forces are leading young people to look at off-the-beaten-path careers that they perceive will help them prosper. I'm all for alternative careers, but I'm concerned that the role of engineers is becoming less obvious.

Everything involves engineering - from satellites, Formula One cars, public transport to ATMs and even smartphones. When I see the Airbus A380, brainwave- controlled bionic limbs or the next-generation coastal protection vessel, I see the work of engineers. I am not simply referring to those who created these modern marvels, but also to those who work behind the scenes to keep them running, and improving.

Advances in technology and smart sensors have changed the way lighting is managed in urban cities and on highways. Governments and utility companies have realised that the use of advanced technologies and sensors can greatly reduce energy consumption, as well as operating and maintenance costs, through smart street lighting systems.

Integrated building facilities systems now enable the management and constant monitoring of complex building functions via a single user interface.

Such systems have been adopted in some of the world's most modern buildings. They include the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town in Jakarta and Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower, one of the tallest commercial complexes in China.

Engineering expertise also lies behind radar surveillance systems that help protect societies from illegal intrusion, oil spills, terrorist activity and piracy. Regular maintenance, repair and overhaul work also keep aircraft flying safely.

Engineering stands on the pillars of science, mathematics, logic and process. Whether it is aerospace, civil, maritime, electronics or biomedical engineering, these disciplines are the fruit of a single framework.

More than this, however, is the fact that engineering skills are critical in an age of converging technologies. Nothing stands alone any more. Mechanical engineers work alongside their counterparts in electronics, optics, speciality materials and environmental control engineering.

Engineers also work with those who deal with aesthetics (the "look and feel" issues) and marketing and financial experts. They understand process-oriented approaches that help manage such convergences and develop interdisciplinary solutions.

This means those who start as "engineers of technology" can adapt to the role of "engineers of business". The skills are easily carried over into the world of business and financial structures.

Engineers of today need to "think broader" and embrace opportunities where they can work alongside architects, property developers, bankers or people from the creative world. This versatility has opened doors for many leaders who began as engineers. Examples include former GE chief Jack Welch (chemical), China's President Xi Jinping (chemical) and ex-premier Wen Jiabao (geomechanical) as well as business magnate and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (electrical). Currently, 20 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies' CEOs have an engineering degree.

I started my career as a marine engineer in a shipyard. An engineering analytical mindset continues to help me every day - from discussing intelligent building and passenger information systems for the MRT, aircraft conversions, to designs of technically sophisticated commercial ships and armoured vehicles. And this may all be done in the same meeting, at ST Engineering!

Changing the way people look at engineering and the way engineers see their own qualifications as a stepping stone to business leadership roles is critical in a world where technologies, business and soft skills combine to create new opportunities.

The writer is president & CEO of ST Engineering, an integrated engineering group providing solutions and services in the aerospace, electronics, land systems and marine sectors.

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