According to the U.S. Department of Labor and a ranking of the 'Best Jobs in America' by CNN Money," there will be high demand for systems engineers over the next decade. But what exactly does the position entail and how does it differ from other engineering disciplines?
As products and devices have become more sophisticated and 'smarter' with increasing interconnects between software, hardware and other components, the need for expertise in managing large-scale, holistic systems has grown dramatically in the past decade. Think about the way your house is built. When you look at it, you can't really see that energy is leaking from the seams around your windows and doors. It's similar when looking at complex systems that bring together many intelligent products and services. There are numerous 'seams' where connected processes, products and services come together and share information-and potentially leak data. So systems engineers are required to manage and integrate all the pieces and keep the operation moving forward.
With its roots in the complex projects created by the aerospace and defense industry, the role of today's systems engineer combines the best attributes of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and software developers to take on the world's most challenging problems. From projects like developing smart cars and helping cities reduce traffic jams to participating in global responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, or coming up with new solutions for cleaning up oil spills, to name a few examples, systems engineers will play a crucial role in the problem-solving process. These types of challenges also come with a high level of uncertainty and risk, which adds another unique layer of skill requirements to the job.
To help meet the growing demand for systems engineers, a new generation of specialists will be needed. And with the retirement of the 'Moonshot Generation'-the engineering experts who were the driving force in successfully landing man on the moon-the push to replenish these ranks is all the more urgent. Thankfully, an increasing number of colleges and universities are evolving their engineering curriculum to address this need.
The University of Central Florida (UCF), for example, has established an Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering (IASE) within its College of Engineering and Computer Science for this purpose. The IASE was created to bring together leaders from industry and academia to prepare students with courses and projects based on real-world scenarios. IBM is collaborating with UCF on this effort and the company recently announced a $2 million investment in technology donations and consulting services.
A number of other schools have moved in this direction-Georgia Tech, North Carolina State University and Southern Methodist University to name a few. But this trend needs to continue, both here in the United States and around the world. And as students recognize the employment opportunities that exist in the field of systems engineering, they'll play an important role in pushing their schools to expand areas of concentration that will help better prepare them for the realities of today's workplace requirements.
Undoubtedly there will be no shortage of complex problems to solve and projects to manage in the years ahead. So for today's engineering workforce, along with those still training in school or facing the cold reality of graduating into the 'real world,' the good news is that the demand for their skills will continue to expand. The key variable, however, is building greater awareness for the field of systems engineering and ensuring that the right kinds of skills are being applied toward those positions. Solving that important challenge could go a long way in helping overcome society's technology challenges and creating a skilled workforce that can more readily find valuable employment opportunities.