Many leaders in Canada’s engineering community believe foundational shifts in the profession and the problems it must solve are fuelling demand for a new breed of engineer.
In an increasingly connected global society, Canadian engineers operating around the world are called upon to do more than design and build structures or extract resources. They must consider the societal implications of projects and seek ways to strengthen economies and bring long-lasting benefits to people. Engineering has a growing need for “big-picture, systems thinkers,” according to Sal Alajek, a portfolio manager with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB).
This new engineering paradigm is at the heart of the mandate of EWB, which is active in what it calls “systemic change initiatives” designed to alleviate poverty both in Canada and in Africa. Mr. Alajek points to a recent water and sanitation project in Malawi.
“We recognize our approach needs to be equally focused on engineering technology and on what is needed in the communities we are working in,” he says. “A water system will ultimately fail if we don’t also build policies and business models to support long-term maintenance and repairs.” In this case, villages across Malawi are now operating the systems through their own organizations, without the support of EWB.
While the demand grows for engineers to address pressing and complex global issues from poverty to climate change, the supply is increasingly strained, due to declining numbers of engineering graduates. Mr. Alajek believes the profession is still too often trying to attract students with an outmoded portrayal of the engineer as a technical problem-solver only.
“I think other professions were much faster at defining in bold ways the impacts of their discipline on global challenges,” he says. “Our role is changing, but we are still talking about the profession using old narratives. We can attract a broader range of young people by stressing the importance of system change and community as the larger context for addressing these challenges.”
What is needed is a “global engineer,” says Mr. Alajek. “This new breed is a holistic engineer who practises outside of silos and engages in public policy, and who looks at the planet’s welfare and makes it paramount.”
|BY THE NUMBERS|
Canada’s electricity supply (594.9 terawatt-hours) comes from:
60% hydroelectric power
15% nuclear power
3% non-hydro renewable sources, such as wind and solar
15% fossil fuels
Source: Canadian Electricity Association
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