Silk Road Engineers

Globalization, which began millennia ago, has had important consequences.

The ancient Silk Road (200 BCE–1400 CE), or Silk Route, consisted of a network of trade routes that mixed populations, promoted cultural interactions, and spread  religions, thereby changing faiths and beliefs. Trade along this network of routes lead to unprecedented collective learning that advanced civilizations as small agrarian communities stretched their boundaries, coalescing into kingdoms and empires that required more complex professions.

The Silk Road integrated international supply chains. For instance, Roman artisans changed their methods to use Chinese silk in place of yarn. Conflict occurred along the route when the Mongol empire fragmented, causing European nations to seek an ocean route to China. And so Columbus mistakenly reached the Americas.

Hence, globalization produced a process driven by international trade and investment. Today, it is also aided significantly by information technology, which was absent along the ancient Silk Road.

Trade has been moving from servicing global demand by exporting goods, such as silk, to producing goods in proximity of where they are sold. Now, the production of goods and services moves regularly within economic and trade consortia, just as it has moved for long within countries. This movement is particularly significant for manufacturing, from higher production cost to lower cost jurisdictions.

The new circumstances have lead to significant changes in the engineering profession.  Lower skilled and lower paying engineering jobs are being offshored while higher skill and higher paid jobs are retained or even generated. Graduates who want to retain their jobs or vie for new ones require skills additional to those provided by traditional engineering disciplines. These new essential skills include small form–factor design, communications, networking, sensor integration, controls, and software engineering.

Does this shift pose a threat to the employability of engineers in advanced economies?

Engineers have been differentiated as being either dynamic or transactional.

Dynamic engineers are capable of abstract thinking and high-level problem solving. These Silk Road engineers succeed in teams, work well across countries and cultures, have strong interpersonal skills, and are capable of communicating technical information in lay language. They “stick their heads up and look around.”

In contrast, while transactional engineers may possess engineering fundamentals and undergo solid technical training, they are typically not able to apply this knowledge to larger problems.

Like the early traders along the Silk Road who were globally mobile, engineers can be asked to work in unwelcoming and hostile places. Engineers performing humanitarian, commercial and reconstruction work in conflict zones have been threatened, kidnapped and killed. Consequently, companies have had to adopt strategies to mitigate security risks.

Because they are mobile, Silk Road engineers can also face danger in otherwise unassuming places where globalization is viewed with trepidation. A racist and boorish man recently opened fire in a crowded bar in Kansas, yelling at two Indian engineers to “get out of my country” before pulling the trigger. The attack killed one of the men and wounded the other, as well as a third man who tried to help.

At McMaster, our Silk Road engineers are taught through our engineering programs to be creative problem solvers. And, thankfully, they have remained out of harm’s way thus far. Our engineers are prepared to solve some of our world’s biggest problems, such as sustainable transportation and energy, climate change, disease and famine. These complex problems call for a heterogeneous understanding of engineering and its social practice.

Thus, we provide McMaster’s Silk Road engineers with additional interdisciplinary backgrounds in business, sustainability and society, and biomedicine and health sciences. They have undergraduate research problem–solving opportunities.
We ask our engineers to have empathy with people and society. Diversity, in this context, is a hallmark of McMaster Engineering clubs and teamsWe imbue it as a core value for all McMaster engineers.

If only the political and thought leaders of unwelcoming communities educated their own citizens similarly.

Globalization through trade and cultural exchanges is as old as civilization. It will continue unabated – if we are to remain civilized.


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