The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had and is expected to have significant and perhaps lasting effect on pretty much every aspect of our lives. Among those areas expected to be the most affected is the field of education, especially professional education such as engineering and management.
From an educator’s perspective, more than the content of engineering and management education, it is the delivery of the content that is expected to change significantly. It is expected that there will be a strong move towards the online model of delivery or a mixed or hybrid model of delivery.
From the students’ perspective, potentially seismic changes are expected. It could be in terms of what they learn and the cost of education and also in terms of their job prospects. Moreover, the concept of a career itself could change in a big way.
Changing job profiles
It’s been known for quite a while that the productivity revolution brought about by automation in the manufacturing process has been reducing the number of traditional ‘corporate’ jobs for students of engineering and manufacturing while opening up opportunities in other fields. Workflow tools in servicer and other efficiency multipliers have added to this. For example, 20 years ago, who could have thought that a VFX or an animation engineer would be solid career choices? The corona crisis is expected to accelerate this trend further.
In the short term, as the economy staggers and recovers from this crisis, hiring for these jobs may also slow down. Thus, reduction in employment opportunities, especially for engineers may be caused by two separate causes. One would be due to the continuing structural and ongoing reduction because of automation. And the second would be because of the temporary reduction caused by the economic effects of the coronavirus. All in all, there is sufficient reason to worry for the students about to graduate and possibly, for the coming batch too.
It is true that the structural causes and temporary causes will have immediate effects on placement and career prospects. However, one should not overlook potential opportunities that will be created by the response of various economies to respond to the effects of the pandemic, both in the short term and the long term. These opportunities may arise from many responses to the pandemic which may be short term as well as ongoing trends which may persist in the longer term. The effect of three such trends is described below.
One of the strongest trends forecasts is the move towards a contactless economy, i.e., move towards making transactions, discussions, negotiations and so on without requiring physical contact such as face to face meetings. This is expected to affect the fields of payments, e-commerce, entertainment, business meetings, travel and education very significantly. Thus, there will be tremendous career opportunities in building and offering services and products enabling this trend. Some of the technologies involved, like identification based on voice, are yet to be developed or are in development. But most of the requisite technologies are already available and much of the value addition will be in the areas of developing a suitable architecture, and more importantly, a business plan, to exploit opportunities emerging from this trend. This would call for a deep understanding of the market and customer requirements and skills in developing a value proposition in meeting these opportunities.
Re-engineering global supply chains
Over the past few decades, supply chains have become sophisticated along with the trend towards globalization. While this has resulted in tremendous gains in efficiency, lowered costs and improved quality, most supply chains have also become vulnerable to a single point of failure due to the predominant dependency on a single country, for example, China. Thus, any perturbation caused by that country has had the effect of disrupting these supply chains, adversely affecting the economies of many countries. And this is still in process.
This realization has led to moves towards diversifying supply chains to protect against such vulnerabilities. Already there is the news of Japan offering incentives to its corporations to move their supply chains away from China to its own shores or other countries. We can expect similar actions from most other advanced economies also.
This would create a tremendous demand for engineering graduates with skills in Supply Chain Management (SCM), business process analysis and consulting in re-engineering and repurposing the global supply chains to make them multi-nodal and robust. It would also offer tremendous opportunities to entrepreneurs in manufacturing and in support services such as logistics, cross-border financial management and SCM coordination. The most critical skills needed to leverage these career opportunities include analytical capabilities, understanding of business dynamics, communication skills and entrepreneurial skills, more than technical skills alone.
Many technologies in areas such as blockchain, cryptocurrencies, Deep Learning and artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and related technologies, knowledge management, data management and analytics, alternative energy systems among others, have resulted in entirely new products and businesses. These trends may be expected to continue at a similar rapid pace but make suitable adjustments to accommodate some of the changes in human contact and other aspects.
Some of the changes in behavioral patterns induced by the pandemic may actually increase the pace of development and adoption of these technologies. Career opportunities will continue to be created in developing these technologies where technical knowledge is the key driver. However, more opportunities will be created in leveraging these technologies to bring new products and services to the market. In those areas where start-ups and other companies have already brought these into the market, management skills would be critical in scaling up these niches to their full potential.
Besides these three, more trends, both expected and unexpected, are likely with associated effects. There is no dispute that the ongoing pandemic will have negative effects on the economies of nations resulting in significant loss of jobs and opportunities, especially in professional fields like engineering. However, the crisis will be temporary for there is a strong incentive for nations and governments to return the situation to a normal, or rather a new ‘normal’. The effects of the pandemic will lead to significant changes in the things we do as we go about our endeavors and also the way in which we pursue them. These changes will surely throw up new job prospects, career paths and also entrepreneurial opportunities.
We will be entering an even more technology-driven world and much of the opportunities will be created by technologies new, maturing and by technologies still in the labs. What is important to remember is that more of the opportunities exist in not just developing the technologies but in getting them into the market to address the market needs or create new market niches altogether.
How to succeed
Succeeding in this world requires not only a sound understanding of technology but managerial and marketing skills too. While an engineering student can develop a sound understanding of technology during the four years of their undergraduate program, they will need to develop one or more of the other skills. Hence, unless one is looking to continue on the technology path, students should seriously consider a degree such as an MBA to develop and burnish the other skills to increase their chances of getting into the new job market and then to succeed in it. In the new and emerging economic landscape driven by technology, a technical degree will probably not be enough to gain an entry, let alone succeed.