Imagine an engineer giving a presentation on how the future consumer of a pharmaceutical product will behave. Then picture another one presenting on the latest complex process for manufacturing the same product.
What would capture your attention more? Of course, the engineer talking about the future consumer.
Why? Because the consumer story is of greater, immediate human interest. This is not to say that news of the latest technological breakthroughs is not exciting in itself.
However, people tend to be attracted more to the impact of innovation on lives and less to the process itself.
That is the dilemma manufacturers the world over face. Do we invest more in the latest technology or in smart people to grow our business?
Do we hire more technical or commercial people?
Where do we find engineers with the commercial skills to spot what consumers are looking for and devise solutions to meet those needs?
Attracting and retaining talent that brings both the “hard” and “soft” skills to the job entails a delicate balancing act.
Aren’t we conditioned to think that engineers should focus on the hard, technical stuff and let the marketers and commercial people sweat out the consumer issues?
Yet this is all changing in the new era of manufacturing, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.
The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” was popularised by Prof Klaus Schwab in a book by the same title.
Following the Third Industrial Revolution, which was about computerisation and the digital economy, Industry 4.0 revolves around highly transformative innovations such as nanotechnology, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT), to mention a few.
These innovations are transforming manufacturing and the workplace.
Manufacturers, therefore, need to cast their net wider to bring in multiskilled employees who possess technical competence, but can also handle customers, suppliers and other actors in the business value chain.
Ironically, there has been growing concern about a shortage of engineers and other technical professionals globally.
The declining number of students taking up the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses has been largely blamed for this problem.
But the bigger challenge, in my view, is the impact on manufacturing with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the disruptive innovations it has unleashed.
For example, data analytics helps companies to automate processes, but also generates more information on consumer behaviour.
The engineer of the future will be one who possesses the extra ability to use such new technologies at the workplace to create value for the business and the consumer.
A report by the Irish Government on boosting the country’s manufacturing competitiveness noted that technical professionals such as engineers need to acquire skills in emerging areas like data analysis.
The point is, even if the shortage of engineers and technical professionals were to be plugged, manufacturers would still have to contend with the impact of fast-changing technology on their operations.
This calls for blending of professional competencies beyond technical skills.
Some rather interesting results of a 2017 global survey of industrial executives and professionals revealed that the skills needed most for Industry 4.0 project leaders are change management (42 percent), cross-functional management skills (38 percent), technical skills (12 percent), motivation skills (four percent) and ethical values (two percent).
A World Economic Forum report titled The Future of Jobs identifies 10 skills workers will need to survive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
These include critical thinking, creativity, people management, service orientation, emotional intelligence and negotiation.
The others are complex problem solving, judgement and decision making, coordinating with others and cognitive flexibility.
It is, therefore, clear that institutions of higher learning in Kenya and elsewhere need to adopt a cross-disciplinary approach to nurturing technical professionals such as engineers.
Besides engineering and IT, courses such as finance, marketing, psychology, communication and sociology help to prepare them for the factories of the future.
The author is the commercial director, Pwani Oils.