Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engineering education and the business of engineering

nos lecteurs francophones : ordinairement, nous offrons le message du prsident dans les deux langues. Par contre, notre discussion sur la question importante de la formation en gnie et son rapport...

January 1, 2000   Canadian Consulting Engineer

nos lecteurs francophones : ordinairement, nous offrons le message du prsident dans les deux langues. Par contre, notre discussion sur la question importante de la formation en gnie et son rapport l’ingnierie ne peut se faire-en-del des 300 mots accords chaque version du message du prsident sans en diminuer la valeur argumentative apporte par le sondage 1999 de l’ingnierie men en automne dernier. Nous reviendrons donc avec un message bilingue au prochain numro. Merci de votre comprhension.

The report issued recently by the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE) on engineering education has no doubt raised a few eyebrows, perhaps caused a ripple among engineering educators. The report treats an age-old dilemma: how to create a university engineering program that provides the right balance between technical and non-technical training, both of which are essential to the practice of modern day engineering.

The Academy’s conclusion: too much technical depth and too narrow a non-technical scope within Canada’s engineering faculties. While their objective of providing Canada’s labour force with suitably trained, well-rounded engineering graduates is laudable, it is not achievable unless the Academy is prepared to recommend that university engineering programs be lengthened considerably.

Conclusions from ACEC’s 1999 Business Survey of members provide an indication of the ambiguity within our industry to the success of engineering faculties in reaching that appropriate balance. 77% of respondents believe that the technical training received from universities by engineering graduates was very (12%) or mostly (65%) applicable to the work that they are expected to perform within the firm. Slightly more than half felt that the same could be said of the non-technical skills of recent graduates.

Perhaps a more telling statistic, however, is the fact that 81% of the ACEC executives surveyed said that their firm undertakes training of some kind for new graduates who join the company. I conclude from this that no amount of university training will be sufficient to keep pace with the speed at which our industry is changing. The issue is not just the development of new technology (which imposes a substantial training load) but also changes in the way in which our industry interacts with both clients and society in general. Without a commitment to continuous learning, our companies will not remain competitive.

Growing requirements for engineers to interact with society are at the root of the CAE’s recommendations. Whereas in the past one of our firms might have been hired to design a chemical factory to ensure uniform product quality, today a successful design (and the critical permits) will be based on smooth interaction with the surrounding community in regard to quality of life issues and safety. Skills such as public presentation and relations, project management, conflict avoidance and mediation might well be the discriminator in successfully getting the commission. Technical competence of the firm will have been largely taken for granted.

In the same way, our firms assume that graduates from Canadian universities have a good grounding in the technical areas of their education. Because of rapid changes in technology, a sufficient breadth of technical education occupies the undergraduate curriculum. Indeed, Masters’ level proficiency is the entry point for many consulting firms. We rely on the educational system to produce graduates with this core knowledge, and we accept the need for ongoing training to build the other skills.

As a past member of the Engineering Faculty Review Board at McGill for many years, I am quite familiar with this debate and my advice on the subject is modest. No undergraduate engineering program should be expected to fully prepare students for the work world. It doesn’t have the time. In today’s rapidly changing business and technical environment, it is critical that university engineering programs focus instead on core technical understanding.

Some very interesting steps have been taken to present this technical material in a way that also exposes students to the need for them to build communications and business skills, and these efforts should be encouraged. Above all else, universities need to instill continuing education principles in the minds of students and let the market provide the rest.

P.S. Keep the graduates coming. More than 60% of ACEC member firms will be looking to hire additional engineers in 2000 and almost two-thirds of our executives surveyed said that the current lack of skilled people in the Canadian market is an important business issue for their firm.


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