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Empowering Tomorrow: Cultivating Purpose and Proficiency in Young Engineering Leaders

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Technology is developing at an unprecedented rate and Artificial Intelligence and climate change are changing the world faster than we can imagine. Coupled with the need for sustainable development, our planet and communities are confronting an uncertain future. To adapt and lead through these changes, young people need more than technical competence. They need to develop skills in leadership, communication and empathy and have the opportunity to explore the complexities of the world they live in.

The UK is facing a skills shortage in many technical and engineering occupations and concerningly, graduate employers often claim that recent hires lack critical professional skills to be able to hit the ground running. This indicates that technical education needs go further. To go beyond technical competence, and give opportunities for students to develop skills in communication and explore the complexities of the world they live in.

All of this calls for a new generation of technologically adept, innovative, and socially responsible leaders across all fields, and young people must be equipped to guide themselves and others with purpose.

This sense of purpose extends across all fields. For example, in the healthcare sector, leadership is paramount for driving innovations that directly impact people’s well-being. A biomedical engineer might lead a team in developing advanced medical devices, such as prosthetics with neurofeedback capabilities, significantly improving the quality of life for individuals with limb loss. Additionally, innovation and application of medical imaging technologies have the potential to enhance diagnostic accuracy and improve patient outcomes on a global scale.

At the other end of the scale, engineering leadership is crucial for sustainable infrastructure development. To design and implement projects that not only meet immediate needs but also consider long-term environmental impact. We can all dream of a future life in a smart city with energy-efficient buildings, integrated public transportation, and renewable energy solutions, contributing to a more sustainable and livable urban environment.

To take on these challenges, young leaders need to develop technological aptitude, strong skills and a sense of purpose. Six qualities that stand out are:

  1.  Sense of Purpose: Today’s challenges are multifaceted and complex. To tackle them requires pushing boundaries, overcoming setbacks, and persevering in the face of adversity. To get this motivation,  leadership skills  alone are not enough, and young people need to find their own, individual sense of purpose. Understanding this will help young people to connect their goals and abilities with the broader societal context and use the vast toolkit of technology to promote positive change.
  2. Effective Communication: We live in a global environment and young people must develop agility in understanding diverse perspectives, and communicating across cultures. Leaders who will make the greatest impact are those who can communicate well. This is vital to collaborate, to inspire teams and to articulate the value of technological solutions, bridging the gap between technology and real-world applications.
  3. Empathy: Young leaders will be at the forefront of creating innovative technologies with the aim to bring meaningful positive change to people’s lives. This requires garnering support and input  from diverse communities. This can only be done by understanding the needs and challenges of the communities and keeping a human-centred perspective.
  4. Proactive Problem-Solving: Effective leaders proactively identify and address problems. Young people must have the opportunities to practise analysing situations critically, identify technological gaps, and propose innovative solutions. By fostering a proactive mindset, students learn to anticipate challenges, seek opportunities, and drive technological initiatives that address current and future needs.
  5. Confidence in Decision-Making: Leadership development instils the confidence to make informed decisions, especially in the face of uncertainty. The ability to assess technological options, weigh risks, and make sound decisions is crucial to drive technological advancements and apply them strategically to address real-world challenges.
  6. Continuous Learning and Adaptation: It is impossible to predict the future, and everyone encounters new challenges and opportunities throughout their career. Fostering a mindset of continuous learning and adaptation, will encourage young people to refine and expand their sense of purpose, and ensure that their leadership remains responsive to the evolving needs of society.

Ultimately, development of engineering leadership and professional skills is not just about producing capable technologists. It’s about nurturing young people to have a sense of purpose. To drive positive change, make informed decisions and address real-world challenges in the face of uncertainty. By giving students opportunities to uncover their sense of purpose, we are sowing the seeds for a generation of leaders who will harness technology not just for innovation’s sake but to create a better, more inclusive, and sustainable world.

Insight Author

Dr Rachel Thorley, Community, Outreach and Recruitment in Engineering at Churchill College, University of Cambridge.