"The engineer of tomorrow is an enterprising team player"

Is there still a shortage of engineers? Is there a future for freelance technical talent? How many engineering entrepreneurs are there in the classroom? And how do companies convince engineers to come and work for them? DEME, Elia and Jan De Nul Group explain their vision of the engineer of the future.

According to the Starter Job Survey conducted by engineering association ie-net, 14% of graduate engineers are still looking for a job – twice as many as in previous years. Are engineers easier to find on the job market?

Hans Casier (Chief Human Resources Officer at DEME): "That 14% can contact us immediately (laughs). It's true that many companies recruited more cautiously or less intensively last year due to uncertainties about the coronavirus crisis and how long it would last. But with us, that mainly applies to back office functions and not at all to engineers who work on a project basis. The labour market prospects for engineers may have suffered briefly from the crisis, but that is a transitory phenomenon."

Mieke Fordeyn (Director International Department at Jan De Nul Group): "We recruit a lot of structural and mechanical engineers. Last year there was never a surplus of talent on the labour market in those areas. One trend we do see is that engineers are applying for jobs earlier and earlier. Ten years ago, a fresh engineering graduate would respond to a vacancy in June or July. Today they're doing so in January or February. Due to the crisis, engineers often decide more quickly to accept a job offer. They used to scout out the market longer."

Sophie Gorlé (Infrastructure Programme Manager at Elia): "In terms of recruitment, Elia also sees little difference from a few years ago: most types of engineering profile remain scarce and sought after on the labour market. In 2020 we recruited 84 new employees. Campus recruitments and other recruitment techniques were organised differently this year. That too is now all done digitally."

Entrepreneurship and starting your own business seem very popular with students today. Does that start-up mentality have an impact on how your company recruits?

Hans Casier: "Somewhat. We make it clear that anyone who wants to go into business has come to the right place. Engineers are given the opportunity to be entrepreneurial in a safe environment. Our innovation processes and in-house start-ups give people opportunities to experiment and to set up their own business. Sometimes this leads to new business activities or even to full business units. In other words, we offer the agile advantages of a start-up combined with the financial stability of a large company."

Sophie Gorlé: "The same goes for us. Elia does not recruit engineers for one specific position, but for an entire career. And we jointly determine how that career develops. That's why it's important that there is a strong match between the values and culture of the company and the individual in question. The purpose economy is becoming increasingly important. More and more young people want to do a job that allows them to have an impact: on the company, on them personally and on society."

Mieke Fordeyn: "Anyone who wants to go into business for themselves can develop those talents with us. Just look at our project sites, both in Belgium and abroad. They are basically all small businesses. Engineers are given the responsibility to lead their project like an SME: they must ensure they're financially stable and that the projects are ultimately delivered in line with the customer's specifications. It's a major plus that people can be entrepreneurial within an international company that nevertheless has a family feel."

Does an engineer's career look different today compared to a few years ago?  

Mieke Fordeyn: "An engineer's career has become more versatile. It's no longer like it was in the days when you performed the same job until you retired. Our company has changed and expanded over the years. That's why engineers at Jan De Nul perform a growing range of different duties. They can transition to other jobs or new positions are created for them. For example, our engineers have been conducting research into the use of alternative biofuels for several years. This has resulted in projects – such as the beach replenishment project in Knokke – that we are currently carrying out with a ship that runs 100% on biofuel, reducing our CO2 emissions by 90%."

Sophie Gorlé: "We also see that with Elia. We are increasingly focusing on the successful implementation of a sustainable energy transition and the development of the electricity grid of the future. Engineers play a key role in solving those challenges. At Elia, too, engineers do not sign up for just one set of tasks: we can take different career paths, it all depends on our flexibility and personal preferences. That means lifelong learning."

Hans Casier: "All this happens at DEME, too. Having said that, I don't know whether an engineer's career is changing more than the careers of other professionals. It's more that the world is changing. Companies are responding to this and are creating new positions for almost all their employees. For engineers, this evolution may be happening a little faster because they are more likely to come into contact with new technologies or because they themselves initiate them."

Some engineers consciously choose not to work as an employee, but rather to offer their services to different companies as freelancers. Where does your company stand on this?

Sophie Gorlé: "We strongly believe in a mix of in-house employees and external contractors for many engineering positions. This ensures a healthy dynamic that delivers added value in various areas. It is precisely because they are outside the company that freelancers sometimes look at certain things in a different way. That outside viewpoint can be very valuable. At the same time, Elia believes that as a company it is best to have critical expertise in-house. Otherwise, the continuity of certain important business activities could be jeopardised."

Mieke Fordeyn: "Jan De Nul is very much a family-owned and run business. We believe in long-term relationships with our employees and are not very focused on freelancers. We want our people to develop a close relationship with our company. Only at busy times, when we temporarily have too few people available for certain functions, are freelance engineers a possible option."

Hans Casier: "Many young engineers have tried freelance work in recent years. But during the current crisis, I notice many of them returning and opting for a permanent position with job security. DEME only brings in freelance engineers at peak times or if we temporarily need very specific expertise. You achieve long-term business success by ensuring commitment between employees and employers. Achieving that kind of commitment is much more difficult with individuals who work for a company sporadically or irregularly."

Statistics show that women are the scarcest engineers of all. Are you taking initiatives to get more women into engineering?

Hans Casier: "I would prefer we evolve into a world where we no longer have to ask this question. Our company is committed to diversity. In my experience, a diverse team made up of different nationalities and including women, is a strong team and can achieve excellent results. When it comes to female engineers, we occasionally discriminate positively: in a situation with two equivalent candidates, we will probably opt for the woman."

Mieke Fordeyn: "Twenty years ago I was the only female engineer in the dredging sector. In recent years, our company has taken on many more women, but of course we cannot avoid the fact that we are dependent on who is available on the market. Today's engineering graduates are mainly male. Our company wants to change that, but it is a complex combination of multiple factors that we as an employer cannot always control. More women are gradually taking engineering courses and that will soon have an effect on the labour market."

Sophie Gorlé: "This is still a sensitive topic. Everyone agrees that we need to ignore things like ethnic background, age and gender. An individual's competence and talent are what really count. Women interested in technology should be given every opportunity to develop that curiosity. This starts from a young age, by giving children gender-neutral toys, for example. Given my interests, I always thought it made sense to opt for an engineering degree. Even now, it rarely occurs to me that I work in a predominantly male environment."

Lastly, what will the engineer of the future look like?

Mieke Fordeyn: "I think it will be someone who makes connections and who is not afraid to opt for innovation and change. Companies must have the courage to give him or her the chance and the responsibility to do just that. That's how they can facilitate innovation."

Hans Casier: "Fundamentally, the engineer of tomorrow is probably not very different from the engineer of today. He or she is someone who tackles challenges proactively with lots of enthusiasm and teamwork and who constantly keeps up with our rapidly evolving world. '

Sophie Gorlé: "I think the engineer of the future must be someone who wants to change the world and, using his or her expertise, help us ensure that we can live in a more sustainable world."

Find the energy and challenge you're looking for at Elia! Browse our vacancies.