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It Is Time to Restore Engineers to Their Rightful Place in the World

Has engineering had its heyday?

This might sound like an absurd question as we enter 2023 with an energy crisis in Europe, a global shortage of scientific and technical talent, and a renewed focus on industrial sovereignty.

Yet, despite all these challenges, we still see a growing wave of criticism, particularly in Europe, deeming technology as incompatible with a sustainable future. Recently, this way of thinking has even taken root in some engineering schools, calling for students to change direction in the name of environmental protection.

Against this disturbing background, it is important not to lose sight of some very pragmatic considerations – and to keep in mind that technology is crucial to moving the conversation around fighting climate change from discussion to execution.

Our priorities, at least in the short term, are to push ahead on renewables, roll out the next generation of heat pumps, develop new battery technologies, design passive-energy buildings, invent new low-carbon modes of transport, and so on. How can we do that without engineers?

“If you want to change the world, become an engineer.” This is what we should be telling our children. Because it is this very discipline and vocation that constitute our only real lever for bringing about, on a relevant scale, new ways to produce, live, and consume. Their insights hold the key to more informed policymaking, and their role is crucial to the resurgence of industry in our countries.

Fostering a talent pool of environmentally-minded engineers does not happen overnight. Here are a few ways leaders can build a pipeline of engineering talent that is committed to solving the loftiest environmental goals.

  • Show Young People How They Can Make A Difference – It is no surprise that Gen Z is one of the most environmentally-minded generations ever. Their passion for creating a more sustainable future needs to be fostered, especially considering that they will make up close to 30% of the global workforce by 2025. Businesses and leadership need to create programs that showcase how a career in engineering can make a meaningful difference in the world around them. This could be through supporting STEM education or even attending career days. We need to offer our young people a clear path on how to turn a passion for sustainability into a career, and community involvement is a great place to start.
  • Set Performance Goals Against ESG Initiatives – Today’s engineers apply different methods and doctrines from those of their predecessors, and operating within planetary boundaries will likely become an increasingly important aspect of their work. For those who may be well into their careers as an engineer, it is never too late to ignite an excitement for leaving the world better than we found it. We must encourage and reward those who prioritize sustainable designs and products. By setting performance goals against your organization’s ESG initiatives, leaders can ensure that everyone is moving in lockstep in the fight against climate change.
  • Walk the Walk to Fight Climate Change – Greenwashing is detrimental in establishing trust around organizations’ climate commitments. For too long, talking the talk was enough, but as we approach a critical tipping point in the fight against climate change, we need to see more companies walking the walk. Organizations should be transparent about where they have succeeded in their climate pledges, where they have fallen short, and where they are going to go next. Environmentally driven engineers will flock to companies that are actually making an impact and see ESG as core to an organization’s DNA.

Change does not just happen at the top, with executives rolling out ESG plans and initiatives. It requires every level of an organization to be fully on board with the vision of building a more sustainable future, and engineering teams are the key link in the chain to making that vision a reality.

As an engineer myself, and as the head of a company that employs large numbers of engineers, I have experienced first-hand the shifts taking place in the academic world and in industry. Leading engineering schools have overhauled their curricula to sharpen their focus on climate change. And at Thales, for example, we have pledged to adopt eco-design principles for 100% of our new products starting this year.

Philosophers, sociologists, and other humanities specialists will continue to play a crucial role in enabling society to fundamentally rethink certain aspects of our ways of life, our relationship with nature, and perhaps even how we organize our societies. But taking that thinking and putting it into action must take center stage as we approach a tipping point in the climate crisis.

Engineers, for their part, will always have a decisive role to play in society, treading a fine line between protecting the planet and enabling our societies to grow and flourish. Others may have a deeper understanding of the natural world around us. But when it comes to how we interact with our environment, engineers hold the answers. To refuse this reality – to dismiss it as “techno-solutionism” – is to condemn ourselves to inaction and, ultimately, to a bleak future.

Finding solutions to the complex problems we face – solutions that take environmental performance and resource scarcity into account – is precisely what engineering is all about. It is high time to restore engineering to its rightful place as a compelling vocation to foster sustainability around the world.

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