Is it time for engineers to become more well-rounded?

July 20, 2012Posted by alex

Seeing a request for certain engineers in my job – I’ve found that many clients and candidates are looking for/trying to be more well-rounded in their abilities (i.e. become well versed in structural, mechanical and piping design and engineering). Is this more generic idea of an Engineer the way forward, or does it mean that the skill sets for these people will decrease as they have too many ‘plates to spin’?

Based on conversations I’ve had it seems that an ‘all rounder’ engineer is a better option to a ‘specialist’ given that the all rounder will be able to contribute much more to an organisation, project or team. Using and drawing on experiences gained previously he/she will be able to make cover when the specialist is not available or on leave. This is of course will give the all-rounder a better outlook and increase chances of promotion within the organisation. Having dealt with the entire project delivery ‘hierarchy’ I have had many different opinions about this argument and it has made for considerable debate.

I think overall, looking at the wider picture, it boils down to a classic question of breadth versus depth. It is often assumed that a well-rounded engineer has less depth and less specialist skills. I tend to think of a well-rounded engineer as someone who is more capable of seeing the big picture (a bird’s eye view) through a rich diversity of experiences. Someone who has worked across several industries and various roles can see similarities and patterns from diverse situations, and is able to “borrow” solutions from one experience to another. On the other hand, a specialist may not have the wider vision or may be trapped inside the box.

From my perspective, it seems inter-disciplinary and multi-faceted experiences (aka well-roundedness) are more useful as you ascend closer to the peak of the management pyramid, or in non-repetitive areas such as consulting, R&D, design, product development, or process improvement.

In a volatile market like we’re currently experiencing, engineers need to be more adaptable. They simply cannot afford to specialise in the modern workforce and this doesn’t just stop at EPCM’s either.

With increasing competition within the EPCM sector, I see consultancies demanding staff to be more flexible in order to improve the value they can provide a project. If they can be working across a range of projects and on a variety of tasks then they are more cost-effective than hiring up to 5 different people to do the work which, in effect, one good all-rounder may do. ‘Good’ being the perogative word, as there are a number of all-rounders who have fallen into that category because they are simply not good at any one thing.

According to a leading American head-hunter in the engineering sector, Skip Freeman, some companies and internal recruiters “Are looking for the safest candidate, not the best candidate”. A safe choice, not a fantastic choice. Hence, the industry is becoming ultra-conservative.

In summary, there is a massive skills shortage in the mining industry at the moment and as I pointed out earlier, people with more skillsets who can cater for absences of specialists are now more sought after than ever before. The skills shortage currently facing the Australian mining and utilities sector is set to worsen too, as skilled job vacancies set to soar with 96 resource and energy projects forecasted to be built or expansions within the next year.