The engineering work landscape is rapidly evolving.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and additive manufacturing emerge and evolve quickly—and they touch almost every industrial sector. A fair number of today’s engineers graduate with powerful textbook knowledge of fundamentals and theory but lack the skills needed to apply that knowledge in their day-to-day work. Even experienced engineers might become siloed and not have the ability and awareness to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technical field.

These two factors have combined to create a worrisome skills gap. In manufacturing, for example, an estimated 2.4 million jobs will remain unfilled between 2018 and 2028. Deloitte estimates the cost of this economic impact to amount to $2.5 trillion.

Addressing this skills gap is critical, and it informs how those of us working in engineering learning and development (L&D) approach everything from course design to education technology.

In 2022, ASME and Autodesk conducted a multiphase research project to define the future job descriptions, typical workflows, and expected duties/skills for mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, and CNC machinists over the next five to 10 years. The researchers found that, “With a reimagined manufacturing education ecosystem, engineers and machinists will be able to obtain the knowledge, training, and skills development to harness new technologies and tools to succeed in the workforce. By working together to understand global trends and industry needs, government, academia, and industry stakeholders can enable the next generation of mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, and CNC machinists with the skills needed to complete the greatest shift in manufacturing history.”

Just as engineering technology and techniques are constantly changing, so is learning science. There used to be (and perhaps still remains) a misconception that you could not replace face-to-face learning with online learning. However, cognitive scientists and instructional design experts have learned a lot about adult learning and learning modalities since the early days of online learning. ASME has taken that science and used it to design learning experiences that make digesting complex information simpler. We’ve also changed when and how learning occurs.

We began introducing new courses designed to be portable and “stackable.” They are paced according to the student’s needs and can be consumed in varying quantities and modalities, with content and assessments that clearly indicate measurable learning progress and performance metrics. We create a realistic professional experience that leverages effective educational technology and creates value for learners and their companies.

A graduate program is one way engineers can level up with changing technologies, but not everyone has the time, money, or the wherewithal to attend. Working professionals don’t necessarily have the luxury of leaving the workforce to go back to school or take night and weekend courses.

Another option, on-the-job training, doesn’t fully equip today’s engineering professional either, since it places the focus on trial-and-error and fast delivery at the expense of macro competencies. Competencies such as complex decision-making skills and critical thinking should be constantly honed to ensure engineers can pivot and grow their careers in a multitude of directions. While engineers might learn the basics on the job, they still risk missing the larger picture.

Finally, not all courses are equal. For example, you can’t expect busy professionals to tune in every Wednesday night for a class taught by a professor or wait another week until the next module is unlocked. This type of model can be inflexible and unrealistic for busy working professionals. On the other hand, an entirely self-study learning path may swing too far away from ensuring experts are available for conversation, Q&A sessions, and constructive feedback.

Blended programs combine the best aspects of all modalities. At ASME, we embrace this learner-centric and flexible design. For example, in self-paced courses, the learner chooses when to study a certain lesson—or the whole course in one sitting. Live courses allow the learner to come to class prepared with a certain amount of prerequisite knowledge, allowing much more interactive course experiences with both the instructor and learning peers. In hands-on courses, the learners get a lab-style learning experience. Blending learning experiences made up of different modalities assure a balance between knowledge and practical application.

ASME courses are built as part of a competency framework, or a learning architecture. In this way, courses also contribute to completing a stronger picture of a learner’s knowledge capabilities, indicating levels achieved in a set of core competencies, with skills sitting underneath. These competencies are about much more than just a pass or fail. Strengths and weaknesses in one competency or skill can be made visible not just to students and instructors, but also to company management. Employers can track their employees’ progress in these competencies or skills, identifying areas of progress as well as where improvement (and targeted investment) is needed.

Besides the format of delivery, having high-quality industry experts teach the courses gives learners a focus on practicality and application. The most effective courses are not static; they deliver takeaways or job aids engineers can implement in their own workflows.

Recruiting and coaching talent are top priorities for companies as they look to plug the skills gap. Research shows the more a company invests in an individual’s training, the more loyal the employee tends to be. Flexible training is one strategy that companies can employ to prepare for volatility and uncertainty in the human resources world.

These days, engineers must be lifelong learners. They can no longer afford to rest assured that their competencies are durable enough to handle the changing landscape. Emerging technologies are moving fast, and the next major breakthrough or advancement is just around the corner. Engineers have to learn how to get ahead of it, and modern L&D options must provide this vital education in a flexible fashion.