Heralded as the “dawn of human engineering”, new research published in Science, the highly regarded academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has discovered that early modern humans in South Africa were using ‘heat treatment’ to improve their stone tools at least 72 000 years, if not 165 000 years ago. What is especially interesting about this research is that it bridges a gap between the use of fire to cook food 800 000 years ago and the emergence of ceramics production 10 000 years ago. Clearly, early human behaviour was more sophisticated than previously thought.
Since that time, engineering has without doubt played a pivotal role in shaping human society. To put it simply, without ‘engineers’ we would still be living in caves, there would be no boats, trains, planes or automobiles, essential utilities such as sanitation and electricity would be non-existent and we certainly would not have been able to send a man to the moon! In a nutshell, the importance of engineering, i.e. the ability to take things within our environment and ‘engineer’ them to fit our needs, should not be underestimated. Sadly, in this day and age this appears to be exactly what has happened.
Less than 40 years ago, being an engineer, regardless of discipline, was one of the most highly respected jobs around. In more recent times, the number of engineering graduates has fallen precipitously the UK saw a 45 per cent decline in electrical engineering students between 2001 and 2007. Another startling statistic is that 60 per cent of those that do graduate with an engineering degree pursue careers in other sectors, such as banking or IT, which are perceived to be more glamorous and lucrative. This has led to real concerns that we are facing a global skills gap as existing engineers head towards retirement age. Further, the current economic downturn is exacerbating the problem
In this month’s issue, Steve Seddon of technical recruitment consultants Morson Group explains why power engineering, like most other engineering fields, is suffering the same fate (p.38-40). According to Seddon, the average age of an engineer working in the UK power generation industry is 53. This figure is mirrored in the Middle East, where the average age of a working power engineer is 50. Similarly, a recent report from the US Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative revealed that 45 per cent of engineers working in the electric utilities industry in the US will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.
The issue of experienced power engineers retiring is being compounded further by the fact that the industry may not have a current workforce with the necessary skills to respond to the ever-changing demands and challenges of the power industry. With pressure to generate power more efficiently and the increasing need for the integration of more renewable energy, power engineers need to adopt an innovative approach to create effective power supply solutions. The renewable sector particularly is benefiting from major investment so urgently needs more power engineers, but as Seddon says, it is not just about having enough people, it is about ensuring that these people have the right skills to meet today’s challenges.
Another ‘revolution’, albeit a relatively quiet one, that is taking place in the industry is the reawakened interest in nuclear power an industry that has essentially been dormant for 30 years. Tim Probert, PEi’s deputy editor, makes a critical assessment of whether Europe is indeed embracing a nuclear power renaissance (p.28-32). If this is the case, and it looks to be so, this will add further impetus to address the widening power engineering skills gap.
However, the situation is not beyond repair, and Seddon highlights some of the interesting initiatives that countries, like Australia, the UK and the US, have launched. As he concludes, this is the responsibility of everyone that makes up the industry both educational establishments and employers and people need to work together to address this shortfall and highlight the benefits and opportunities of working in power engineering to young people.