COVID-19 Is a ‘Catalyst’ for Rapid Change in Industry, Education

Business leader Christopher J. Wiernicki, M.S. '83, spoke about how companies must learn to adapt for future success as part of the annual Frank Howard Distinguished Lecture.

November 18, 2020


Chris Wiernicki

Christopher J. Wiernicki, SEAS M.S. '83.

By Kristen Mitchell 

COVID-19 has changed the way our society operates in only a matter of months. Many companies have had to learn how to operate virtually and meet changing demands, likely forever altering how they do business, said Christopher J. Wiernicki, M.S. '83.

As chairman, president and CEO of Houston-based American Bureau of Shipping, Mr. Wiernicki has seen this transformation firsthand. COVID-19 poses a severe threat to health and safety around the world, but it has also acted as a “catalyst and accelerator,” reshaping every industry’s commercial, safety and security trends.

“We all had to learn and adapt to this new reality on the fly, devising new methods of working virtually and remotely in real time,” he said. “We are all, quite frankly, witnessing this digital transformation on a daily basis as we go about leading companies.”

Mr. Wiernicki spoke about the skills engineers and computer scientists will need to have as we enter a new era of social change driven by technological innovation. His talk, titled “Navigating the New Normal,” was part of the annual School of Engineering and Applied Science Frank Howard Distinguished Lecture. The endowed lecture series fund was established in 1945 to bring outstanding leaders of science and industry to GW to discuss topics in engineering and related subjects.

SEAS Dean John Lach opened the virtual event Thursday afternoon, noting the timely nature of the discussion. 

“Chris and I have had some exciting discussions on this topic, and he is most definitely a thought leader on the future of engineering and how engineering schools can best prepare their students for that new future,” Dr. Lach said. 

Mr. Wiernicki was inducted into the GW Engineering Hall of Fame in 2013. He also sits on the SEAS National Advisory Council, which meets regularly with the dean to provide advice and resources to help enhance the educational programs and opportunities available to SEAS students.

The speed and scope of new technological breakthroughs are rapidly changing the way people work and the skills they will need to be successful in the future, said Mr. Wiernicki, who also serves as chair of ABS Group of Companies, a global risk consulting and technical services company. Fast-paced technology changes require an agile workforce and business leaders willing to adapt.

“Innovation is nothing more than fast learning,” he said. “The talent of the future is not training for today. The talent of the future is learning for tomorrow.”

Colleges and universities should rethink curriculum for engineering programs by emphasizing a convergent mindset that not only includes technical expertise but also social and economic context. In addition, systems engineering, computer science, and data analytics should be infused throughout engineering curricula, not just taught as separate courses. Academic leaders should prepare students to anticipate and leverage emerging technologies in their careers. “Fresh thinking, new technologies and alternative business models,” will be essential for companies to thrive in the future, where they will meet challenges including market uncertainty and stricter regulations in a post-COVID world, Mr. Wiernicki said. 

While businesses are increasingly relying on machine learning and automation, leaders must continue to recognize the value of employees. The maritime industry, for example, is pursuing more real-time, risk-based decision making influenced by the digital world—but there is no replacement for talented employees and strong company culture, Mr. Wiernicki said.

“Always remember technology lacks institutional knowledge, common sense and a sense of humor,” he said.

Mr. Wiernicki participated in a Q&A session moderated by Dr. Lach following his lecture. 

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