The digital world is a scary place. It is a place of automation, it is a place of digitization, it is a place of disruption. And it can’t be ignored. If you don’t have the skills for work as dictated by the fourth industrial revolution...you may be in trouble.

People may find themselves in jobs that will be automated out of existence in the near future. Thankfully, however, education and training is also undergoing a revolution and is ready to meet the challenge of bridging the digital skills gap.

To quell the anxiety, the Dean of Engineering at the Engineering Institute of Technology, Steve Mackay, presented to a room full of graduated and budding engineers in South Africa. The presentation was entitled: ‘Taking control of your Engineering Career & Learning in the new Digital World’. Mackay said:

“You may be doing something today, but tomorrow, you will be doing something completely different. The most important message is that you should commit to continuously learning.”

Steve Mackay
Dr Steve Mackay

Mackay advises that a good rule of thumb, when deciding what discipline of engineering to pursue, is to consider what engineering skills your country desperately needs. That way, pursuing and getting a job in industry is more likely. He said:

“Look for the job demands of the country you are based in and be open to always learning and upskilling. Every country needs a certain kind of engineer - in fact; every town has its own particular demands and needs its own kind of engineers.”

Once students start to pursue their discipline, Mackay says, they will acquire qualifications. But they must not underestimate the value of learning informally, through practical tinkering with technology and learning the ropes of engineering, at work, through others.

Joining Mackay at the seminar was engineer and EIT lecturer, Deon Reynders. He currently teaches the Advanced Diploma of Industrial Automation, the Advanced Diploma of Electrical and Instrumentation (E&I) Engineering in Mining, and the Advanced Diploma of Mechanical Engineering.

He is also one of two instructors who is teaching the module known as Fundamentals of Project Engineering. Reynders suggested that engineering professionals should be constantly upskilling because of the rapid progress made in technology every decade.

“I graduated in 1972. One of our professors gave us a little farewell speech and he said: ‘Gentleman, I want to tell you something. The technology that you will use in your career does not exist yet’. I was taught using the slide rule and printed logarithm tables - there were no computers, no laptop, no mobile phone, there was no internet and no wireless.”

45 years later and Reynders is still a student of ongoing technological development. As a senior engineer, he has to be on top of all of the new developments in industry. He says:

“In 20 to 30 years from now you’ll laugh at this outdated junk; mobile phones, laptops. They will be archaic museum pieces. Things are changing rapidly, you can see it, it’s changing rapidly. You see technology merging. For example, for a couple of bucks you can buy a drone now which is a combination of mechanical and electronic engineering; it’s got camera, WiFi, incredibly complex control algorithms, and it will fly and land in your hand. It’s made by a team of multi-skilled engineers.”

 

Online learning

In 2007, he began lecturing online for EIT. The institution advertised a course in cyber security, and one student enrolled. After that, they created a course in data communications. Reynders has penned two books entitled: ‘Practical Industrial Data Communications: Best Practice Techniques’ and ‘Practical TCP/IP and Ethernet Networking for Industry’. 

Deon Reynders
Deon Reynders

Reynders officially went rogue from his university past (he was once head of a department at the Walter Sisulu University) and decided to become a full-time, online lecturer, able to teach from any place he could find an internet connection. He lectures from his home office and plans to lecture from his yacht - which he is still building.

“We have to keep upskilling, multi-skilling, and learning. Otherwise, you’re gone...you’re dead. Thankfully, the methods of learning are also changing. The days of going to a university and sitting in the class and resigning from your job are numbered. In ten to fifteen years from now you will see the lecturer in virtual reality - but let’s take it one step at a time. But, meeting people online, and teaching and learning online, and accessing laboratories online, it is becoming the new paradigm. It’s the new way we do things.”

At the conclusion to the seminar it was clear that - when considering how to upskill oneself - the mindset should be: digital first, traditional second.

And finally Mackay commented on the future of engineering degrees. He believes they will become more niched with the focus on ‘micro-degrees’. These will be acquired throughout a career to keep workers industry-ready. They will equip those in the workforce with the necessary theory, but with the essential and relevant practical, hands-on skills needed in the engineering industries of today and into the future