Kyran Fitzgerald: Engineering solutions for global woes

Kyran Fitzgerald: Engineering solutions for global woes

Engineering firms are finding it more and more difficult to recruit the talent they and the planet require to work on sustainable and innovative solutions to the problems that face mankind. Pic:iStock

YOUNG people are particularly engaged with the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss and rightly so. It is, after all, their natural inheritance — and that of their likely offspring —which is being squandered.

However, it may not be enough simply to march the streets on behalf of the planet, or to start reining in the consumption that is particularly damaging to the Earth. We in both the wealthy and the less advanced parts of the world are going to have to rely to an increasing extent on people with practical skills in areas such as scientific research and engineering.

These skills will be required for the construction of the sea walls, the renewable energy facilities and the electric vehicles which we will require and for the new medical treatments that will be needed to tackle the diseases that may spread as a result of overpopulation, environmental degradation and mass migration.

In an era when it will no longer be business as usual, clever and determined people will be required for the construction of the New Jerusalem.

Take the profession of engineering. We are simply not producing enough graduates in this vital field.

Engineers Ireland has just published its latest annual ‘barometer’ of the profession. It makes for interesting reading.

The survey reveals that the employment of engineers in Ireland remains on a strong upward curve, with an annual growth rate of 11%. More than 5,000 jobs in the sector are expected in Ireland, this year.

However, engineering firms are finding it more and more difficult to recruit the talent they require. Take civil
engineers and construction project managers. According to the report, shortages of graduates are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years.

This is also the case in production design, in quality control, automation and among civil, electrical and chemical engineers.

Across much of Europe, there are similar shortages. The profession needs to sell itself more vigorously. This has begun to happen.

Is the school system falling down when it comes to recruiting people into what tend to be difficult subjects?

Could schools be making much more of new technology and outside experts including tutors? Are enough firms and organisations being enlisted in the task of steering young people towards Stem subjects?

There is evidence of progress in that the numbers sitting science and maths for the Junior Cert have been on the increase.

The numbers taking maths have risen from around 32,000 in 2014 to almost 37,500 in 2019.

There remains a gender gap in certain subject areas. Whereas 49% of Leaving Cert maths students and 63% of biology students are girls, just 28% of physics students are female. Girls accounted for 44% of Stem subject takers at Leaving Cert level last year.

The rewards for those with the necessary application and perseverance can be considerable.

A graduate engineer can expect to earn €33,000 a year, starting off, with annual income rising to around €50,000 within six to 10 years.

In a wider sense, there is much to play for — both in terms of our domestic economy and in the fulfilment of global goals related to poverty reduction and economic development.

In 2015, the United Nations unveiled a plan aimed at drastically reducing global poverty by 2030. The plan takes the form of a series of sustainable development goals, or SDGs. Irish diplomat, David Donoghue, played a central role in the crafting of the plan.

“Engineers are central to sustainable development and are uniquely placed to help the world meet critical goals including ending poverty, protecting the plant and ensuring prosperity for all,” he said and believes that Irish educators can play a big role in providing people with the skills required in areas such as combatting climate change and the promotion of clean energy and water quality.

Donoghue — brother of novelist and screenwriter, Emma Donoghue — has served as Head of the Anglo Irish Secretariat and as Permanent Representative at the UN. He spent several years there negotiating the sustainable development goals. It was not a straightforward process as he makes clear.

There are 17 goals set out along with 169 sub-goals covering areas such as lifelong learning and sanitation, clean water and clean energy, efficient transport.

The goals are not legally binding. “Smaller countries would not agree to put themselves into a straightjacket.” The task is to ensure that all of this amounts to a lot more than “a warm bucket of spit” to paraphrase a former US vice president, John Nance Garner.

Much horse-trading went on as the negotiations reached their conclusion at the UN.

Donoghue has since retired from the diplomatic service, but he continues to work on the project in an unpaid capacity.

Almost five years on, the momentum has been sustained, although no country — not even places like Norway — are close to living up to the ambitious promise of the 2015 declaration.

That said, the project has allowed countries to address issues of development in a more disciplined way.

“It took a year or two for countries to get used to the fact that the goals are interconnected. There is a global reporting mechanism. The enthusiasm is palpable.” As Donoghue makes clear, the private sector has a key role to play in the implementation phase.

The amount of financing required is enormous: five to seven trillion dollars a year up to 2030. Public-private financing will play a role.

The carrots for business are obvious. “Enormous markets could be opened up.” Changes are taking place. “Cities have spotted enormous opportunities — they are forming networks to promote the goals and many universities are resetting their priorities around them. The SDGs are the only uncontested global framework around.”

And he adds, many of the biggest opportunities opening up could be on offer to an engineering profession which is crying out for fresh expertise — and legs.

More in this section