Summary

Science and engineering technicians (or associate professionals) is a wide occupational group where employees perform technical tasks relevant to science and engineering.

Key facts:

  • Science and engineering is a broad umbrella term for multiple fields and disciplines such as life sciences, computer science, automobile engineering. Therefore, workers in this occupational group may be affected by very different drivers or the same drivers may affect their jobs and skills in distinctive ways.
  • Around 8 million people were employed as science and engineering technicians in 2018.  Employment in the occupation grew by 3 per cent between 2006 and 2018.
  • The top 3 employment sectors of science and engineering technicians are manufacturing, construction and professional services.
  • Employment is projected to grow by another 4 per cent over the period 2018 to 2030, or around 400,000 new jobs.  Additionally, 3.9 million of existing jobs will be vacated in the same period and new workers will be needed to replace them. The total demand will reach 4.3 million between 2018 and 2030.
  • The key 3 workplace tasks and skills of science and engineering technicians are gathering and evaluating information, creativity and resolution and autonomy.
  • Around half of the workers in this occupation held a medium-level qualification in 2018 (53 per cent), with just over a third (36 per cent) holding a high-level qualification. The share of medium-level qualified workers is expected to drop, whereas the share of high-qualified workers will grow. The percentage with low level qualifications will remain more or less unchanged at around 10 per cent.

Tasks and skills

Science and engineering technicians (or associate professionals) [1] is a wide occupational group where employees perform technical tasks relevant to science and engineering. More specifically, these professionals may supervise and control technical (e.g. setting up and/or monitoring of computerised control systems or experiments and tests of systems, recording observations and analysing data, perform technical functions to safeguard efficient and safe movement of ships aircraft etc.) and operational aspects (e.g. operate switchboards and multi-function process control machinery) of mining, manufacturing, construction and other engineering operations, and operate technical equipment including aircraft and ships.

The main sub-occupations in this group regard, among others, engineering technicians, chemical engineering technicians, air traffic controllers, computer network and systems technicians, broadcasting and audio-visual technicians, and telecommunications engineering technicians.

According to Eurofound's Job Monitor, the key 3 workplace tasks and skills of science and engineering technicians are gathering and evaluating information, creativity, resolution and autonomy.

Figure 1: Importance of tasks and skills of science and engineering technicians

Note: The importance of tasks and skills is measured on 0-1 scale, where 0 means least important and 1 means most important.

The employment level science and engineering technicians is expected to grow by 4.5 per cent between 2018 and 2030, a further increase following the 3 per cent growth over the period 2006 to 2018. The developments on a country level will vary. Net increase of science and engineering technicians’ is expected in 17 of analysed countries, while their employment will decline in 11 countries.

Figure 2: Future employment growth of science and engineering technicians in European countries (2018-2030, in %)

The 4.5 per cent growth represents more than 350 thousand of new job openings. In addition to that, an estimated 3.9 million people are projected to leave the occupation for one reason or another such as retirement [3].

Figure 3: Future job openings of science and engineering technicians (2018-2030)

It is interesting to note that science and engineering professionals will probably be more sought after in the labour market that the associate professional ones. Among others, this could be attributed to the increased need for high level skills in the sectors employing both these occupational groups; and the higher vulnerability of associate professionals to replacement by automation, compared with the respective group of professionals.

In 2018, 53 per cent of science and engineering professionals held a medium level qualification.  This is projected to fall to 45 per cent in 2030.  In contrast, the share of workers with a high level qualification is expected to increase from 36 per cent to 45 per cent.  The share of workers with a low level of qualification will remain more or less unchanged over the 2018-2030 period – moving from 11 per cent to 10 per cent.

Science and engineering technicians are employed across many economic sectors, but two thirds of them are concentrated in just three of them: manufacturing, construction and professional services. Compared to 2018, employment in manufacturing will decline, but both construction and professional services will create many new jobs.

Which drivers of change will affect their skills?

Science and engineering is a broad umbrella term for multiple fields and disciplines such as life sciences, computer science, automobile engineering  [4]. Therefore, workers in this occupational group may be affected by very different drivers or the same drivers may affect their jobs and skills in distinctive ways. As construction is the most significant employer for this occupational group, developments in the sector will have a weighted prominence.

  • Technological advancements introduce new ways of planning and building in construction of infrastructure. Workers employed in this sector will subsequently need to have pertinent skills, as will science and engineering professionals. It goes without saying that technology already impacts all sectors and thus jobs across the economy. Particularly for these workers, advancements in tools, machines and processes in manufacturing will not only revisit their must-have skills, but also increase the risk of replacement due to automation. At the same time, if manufacturing that uses 3D printing takes off, smaller units carrying out specialised jobs may come into existence, influencing jobs and labour demand in ancillary industry sectors that provide specialised capabilities and services connected to manufacturing. In the long-term, more specialised skills with technical proficiency across multiple industry segments where manufacturing capabilities play a part are also likely to be in demand. The same applies to a wide range of other occupations within science and engineering associate professionals, from geology technicians who may be employed in mining or building construction, where innovations such as higher-definition surveying and geolocation [5] are expected to soon change the game; to air traffic safety technicians.

“3D printing, resource-efficient sustainable production and robotics are all seen as strong drivers of employment growth […], in light of a continued and fast-growing need for skilled technicians and specialists to create and manage advanced and automated production systems.”

The Future of Jobs, World Economic Forum, 2016

  • Increased demand for interoperability, globalisation, and growth in smart devices could lead to exponential growth in standardisation activity [6]  [7]. There is already increased activity on standards in relation to 5G [8], the internet of things [9], 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles. This trend is expected to lead to increased demand for science and engineering associates who work on technical and operational specifications of products in multiple industry sectors. This growth in standards and patents is likely to continue and result in increased demand for science and engineering associates in professions related to standardization activities. Due to increased standardisation, some of the more specialised technical and operational positions may be lost as some of the existing practices and standards become obsolete.
  • Concerns over climate change reshape the focus of several sectors and thus occupations. Relevant to these associate professionals, the 2016 Paris Agreement is expected to lead to increased emphasis on reducing global carbon emissions, and implementation of the commitment from developed and developing countries to reduce carbon emissions [10]. This target is likely to see increased public sector funding and growth in jobs related to deploying, operationalising, and maintaining clean energy projects [11]. As the prices for commercialising renewable energy fall, increased private sector investment in clean energy is likely and could be a key driver of jobs in a range of technical occupations.
    • Growing demand for environmentally sensitive construction and energy efficient buildings can secure resources and support vulnerable citizens who suffer from energy poverty [12]. By default, traditional practices (and thus skills to implement these practices) are already under change [13].
  • Due to continuing difficulties in the economic climate, public sector investment and funding of academia-led primary research is likely to remain under pressure. Although certain sectors of the industry such as life sciences and computer sciences [14] continue to invest in research, this is likely to be in applied research. The continued pressure on public sector finances is likely to pose a challenge for basic research in science and engineering alike. As a reflection of this trend, the technical and operational roles (handled by those with medium qualifications) are expected to see mild decline.
  • Risk of automation: As a part of its Digitalisation and future of work project, Cedefop estimates the risks of automation for occupations. The most exposed occupations are those with significant share of tasks that can be automated – operation of specialised technical equipment, routine or non-autonomous tasks – and those with a small reliance on communication, collaboration, critical thinking and customer-serving skills. The risk of automation is further accentuated in occupations where employees report little access to professional training that could help them to cope with labour market changes. Science and engineering technicians are reportedly an occupation with low risk of automation.  

How can these skill needs be met?

Where increased automation is likely to make further inroads into engineering processes, challenges are posed to operational jobs in certain industry sectors. This suggests a clear need to either reskill those in such operational jobs or upskill them to handle the more advanced operational demands of newly automated tasks. To handle such a demand and limit any potential job losses, businesses need to design training at work that addresses these changed skill requirements.

Increased automation also poses particular risks to smaller firms which may need to adapt to a loss of business to lower-cost automated alternatives and thus need to be equipped to shift production up or down the manufacturing value chain as appropriate. To achieve this, educational providers in private and public sector alike need to provide technical training to those with operational roles. With public sector funding of science and engineering facing increased challenges in the face of a difficult economic climate, newer models of public-private co-funding would need to be aligned with changing skill requirements across different industries.

The anticipated increase in the share of high-level of qualified employees may come as a response to the skill demands analysed above. In addition, strong waves of retirees stress the need for well-educated and ready for the labour market new comers in this occupational group. Vocational education and training (VET) can be the main learning path for science and engineering associate professionals. High quality VET training that leads to qualifications pertinent to this occupational group can ensure smooth transition of new comers; sufficiently stable adoption of new technologies and subsequent growth for firms. The importance of VET rises again in regards to continuous upskilling or reskilling of workers, to ensure they are updated on upcoming trends and skills. Additionally, upskilling through VET training that leads to full or partial qualifications could also support current employees to gain higher qualifications and sustain their work, while being better equipped to implement more challenging tasks, adjust to the needs of the labour market, take upon supervision roles etc. Learning pathways through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or web-based/distance formal education providers would be crucial to handling the shortfall in skills in emerging / innovation-driven areas such as 3D printing or clean energy projects, while addressing possible financial constraints of employers or individuals.

References

All web-links were last accessed February 7th, 2020.

[1] Defined as ILO ISCO 08 group 31 Science and engineering associate professionals. ILO, (2012), International Standard Classification of Occupations ISCO-08.

[3] The need to replace workers leaving a profession for various reasons, such as retirement, is called ‘replacement demand’. More information on replacement demand and how it drives employment across sectors, can be found on the Skills Panorama here.

[4] OECD, 2015, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2015: Innovation for growth and society, OECD Publishing, Paris. As of 30 May 2016

[5] Agarwal, R, Chandrasekaran, S, Sridhar, M, 2016 Imagining construction’s digital future, Capital Projects and Infrastructure June 2016 McKinsey Productivity Sciences Center, Singapore

[6] European Commission, 2011, Commission Staff Working Paper: Impact Assessment Accompanying document to the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on European Standardisation and amending Council Directives 89/686/EEC and 93/15/EEC and Directives 94/9/EC, 94/25/EC, 95/16/EC, 97/23/EC, 98/34/EC, 2004/22/EC, 2007/23/EC, 2009/105/EC and 2009/23/EC. COM(2011) 315 final and SEC(2011) 672 final. As of 30 May 2016.

[7] European Commission, 2011, Commission Staff Working Paper: Executive summary of the Impact Assessment Accompanying document to the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on European Standardisation and amending Council Directives 89/686/EEC and 93/15/EEC and Directives 94/9/EC, 94/25/EC, 95/16/EC, 97/23/EC, 98/34/EC, 2004/22/EC, 2007/23/EC, 2009/105/EC and 2009/23/EC. COM(2011) 315 final and SEC(2011) 671 final. As of 30 May 2016 

[8] Nicoll, Chr. & Nipun, J., 2014, ‘5G worldwide outlook: standardisation programmes and technology developments’, Research report by Analysys Mason, viewed 30 May 2016

[9] IERC-European Research Cluster on the Internet of Things, 2015, Position Paper on Standardization for IoT technologies, IERC Position Paper 2015, viewed 30 May 2016

[10] Walt, V., 2015, ‘Energy Companies Face Big Risks from Paris Climate Deal’, Fortune , 17 December, viewed 30 May 2016

[11] International Energy Agency, 2015, Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, viewed 30 May 2016

[13] Agarwal, R, Chandrasekaran, S & Sridhar, M 2016 Imagining construction’s digital future, Capital Projects and Infrastructure June, McKinsey Productivity Sciences Center, Singapore

[14] OECD, 2016, Main Science and Technology Indicators, viewed 30 May 2016