Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Why attempt to refine these definitions?

Year after year industry and professional group declare that there is a shortage of people taking up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The universities churn out people with degrees, then industry complains about the lack of skill of these graduates. Debates ensue regarding generality and need for breadth prior to taking up employment and the need for industry to provide on the job training. More over the experienced so called professionals have forgotten where they started. Business does not seek graduate civil engineers or graduate mechanical engineers. Business seeks people with 5 to 10 years experience in a specific area of practice: it seeks to duplicate the people it already has or replace those that it has lost. The people are considered little more than cogs in a machine that can be produced and replaced. That poses a problem: no one wants to be considered a cog, but the industrial systems are not producing the cogs that the machine needs to function properly. The professionals, the profiteers are the problem.

We could vastly improve health care if it wasn't held hostage by the medical profession. Only need a heart surgeon if people need heart surgery. If keep people healthy then reduce the need for heart surgeons, if there is no heart surgery then no status and prestige of being a heart surgeon. But if someone needs heart surgery how to ensure people have the necessary skill and experience if not been carrying out as a matter of routine? For heart surgery is established scientific knowledge (applied science), as a community we don't expect much to go wrong with such surgery. If something goes wrong then we can compare against the established body of knowledge and identify failure to follow established procedures.

Now status, prestige and big salaries is not what it is all about. Such things may have been what our great grandparents were concerned with: working hard to send their children to university to study law, medicine, political science, arts, science. The objective to lift their families out of poverty and otherwise walk beside those of the ruling aristocracy, gain favour and otherwise improve their quality of life, comforts and luxury. Modern industrial society has gone beyond this, we have varying forms of democratic rule, and the majority have access to a reasonable quality of life, comfort and luxury. On the otherhand our society is also built around a competition for access to scarce resources: though often times the scarcity is a creation of those who manipulate the economic system. The primary issue for the individual therefore is how can they survive in this competitive environment, how can they gain access to the resources they need to survive using the resources they have available? One way is to form professional groups, then use fear and uncertainty to lobby the government and impose legislation that restricts work practice to members of the profession. This is most readily done in societies which are less than informed. Thus lawyers, medical doctors and architects achieved these restrictions early in the formation of industrial society. The problems associated with such constraints, along with modern fair trading laws, prevent an educated populace from permitting further constraints: if such occurs it is without their consent.

On the otherhand such legislation may not be overly restrictive. Whilst the use of the title architect may be restricted in certain contexts, and there is certain work that can only be done by architects: the legislation and restrictions are largely irrelevant in the modern world. Why? Because we have regulations, codes of practice, and regulatory systems to safeguard the public welfare. We don't rely on the ethics of individuals, instead we have systems of independent checks and balances. Hence some 80% of all building projects have specifications drawn and written up by builders, plan-drafters or owner-builders: no architects involved anywhere. Regulatory Approval is granted by building surveyors working for authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) these building surveyors may call upon other suitably qualified persons to provide more specialised judgement.

Whilst some legislation may refer to registered engineers, in the main codes of practice and regulations tend to make reference to suitably qualified. Why? Because a civil engineer is not necessarily suitably qualified in structures. A structural engineer is not necessarily suitably qualified in coldformed steel or aluminium structures. A structural engineer is not necessarily suitably qualified in tension membranes and cable-nets. A structural engineer is not necessarily suitably qualified in plates and shells. A structural engineer is not necessarily suitably qualified in vibration and structural dynamics. Further more regulations are typically concerned with performance of the end-product in operation, not with the feasibility of fabrication and construction. Thus whilst the structural engineer may have demonstrated that a structure is compliant with codes of practice, it doesn't mean it can be built. So we have two basic issues of concern:

1) Public welfare and safety
2) Quality of service.

When civil engineering emerged it was concerned with that in the civl domain as opposed to the more traditional military engineering. Civil engineering as a learned discipline also emerged as the science societies wanted to concentrate on pure science rather than applied science. the emergent civil engineers however were more interested in railway lines, than the development of steam engines and locomotives: mechanical engineering broke away as a separate discipline. Other disciplines emerged as new technologies developed and required specialised knowledge. That specialised knowledge is now a matter of Technical Science. The body of knowledge that constitutes Technical Science is growing rapidly. It is part of the reason why there are requirements for continuing professional development (CPD). However the bulk of the body of Technical Science is not relevant to an individuals job function. Unfortunately the bulk of the body of knowledge forming their academic qualifications is also irrelevant to their job function.

Industry, educational institutions and professions have messed up the timing, placing status before usefulness, competence and proficiency. Early on with professionals there was a problem with experience: to join the profession needed experience (nominated and elected to professional societies/institutions), to gain the experience needed to be qualified to practice. So needed to be qualified to work, but couldn't get qualified because needed to be qualified to gain the experience. But this is largely a problem of fast tracking, most especially when it comes to engineering or more properly technical design.

Traditionally in engineering people started on the shop floor or the construction site. Those who could read and write and showed potential were taken into the drawing office. These people thus already had some knowledge of the technology they were dealing with and the requirements for being able to build it: the basics of engineering. In the drawing office they started as tracers gaining drafting skills, knowledge of technical drawing (engineering graphics/ descriptive geometry). As their skills in technical drawing increased they moved from tracer to copy-drafter to drafter. As an experienced drafter, they became able to solve more and more problems on the drawing board moving them into the position of design-drafter. From there the person may become responsible for more and more characteristics of the system which are more abstract and cannot be shown on the drawing board. The individual has to learn more and more technical science associated with the technology they are involved with. Ultimately they may become principal designer: but not everyone in the organisation is going to attain this position: there can only be one principal. {As another example in the Manchester (UK) police force, you could take the sergeants exam, but that didn't mean you became a sergeant, you had to wait until such position became available. Depending on the age distribution of the personnel, you may hit retirement before such eventuates.}

So its all fine people going to university and getting a degree in engineering, but that doesn't make them an engineer, and they may never have the opportunity to acquire the experience necessary to meet professional registration requirements. We have already pushed the frontiers of science and technology in many areas, and founded the Technical Science. Registration and/or licensing of engineers is largely about technical competence of technicians dealing with the established technologies than operating at frontiers.However we do not build power stations, water filtration plants, sewage treatment works, bridges or other large infrastructure on a regular basis: routine established technology that it may be. Most projects are relatively small scale and do not involve the same level of team work and interaction of systems.

So we are crying a demand for engineers, the universities have been churning them out, but that is not what industry or society needs. For certain industry needs innovators, but we cannot train the creative, only develop and encourage the talents of the creative. What industry is in far greater need off, are people with a high level of proficiency and technical competence in the established technologies and the associated Technical Science. It is not civil engineers or mechanical engineers that industry needs, but designer/analysts in specific areas of practice. For example don't want a structural engineer, want a designer of timber structures, or a designer of concrete structures. Tossing away irrelevant science like nuclear physics, such designers can be provide with the enabling competencies in less than a year. {NB: each major engineering discipline typically has the breadth of 5 major areas of practice: and these are still too broad to be of practical value.}

We need to be making better use of our resources, differentiating between the needs of industry and society, individual desires, and elitism of profession. Persons with degrees in engineering calling themselves engineers does not help the status of the profession. It is pointless referring to professional engineer and graduate engineeer, it will be abbreviated to engineer. Legislation which restricts practice is of little  value, it simply complicates use of language and causes time be wasted on unwarranted law cases. Far better to rip occupational titles from all degrees, whether accredited by some professional group or not.

Academic qualifications do not provide enabling competence, they provide foundational knowledge, training is then required to develop competence and profeciency. Given requirements for quality assurance systems within industry, continuing professional development requirements for individuals, and national qualification frameworks like AQF which has 10 levels, and increasing availability of distance learning, it does not seem that difficult to achieve the needs of industry. Historically during the industrial revolution, a lot more self-learning was taking place than today: people learning what hey needed to know, rather than what some profession wants them to know. The problem today is a seeming need to be taught rather than to learn: an unnecessary dependence on teachers. For example now have masters degrees in engineering practice to learn national standards when previous generations got on with learning on the job.

People seem to be locked into collecting credentials, certificate for this a certificate for that, attend this seminar and that seminar, but never putting any of the knowledge supposely acquired to use. It costs business and government organisations a lot of money, for no real gain. Once again its based on fear and uncertainty, mask common knowledge in obscure jargon so think there is something that you don't know and had better find out about: unless be considered negligent. Yet the real negligence is a failure to study the Technical Science directly related to the job function and technology dealing with daily, or otherwise simply gain a greater breadth of knowledge of the world in which you live, beyond the constraints of your specific area of practice.

The other issue for engineeing, is who is going to fabricate and construct, and then eventually operate the systems that are being proposed. If we have an education system biased towards pushing everyone through university programmes, then we have a problem in training people to do the actual production work. As already mentioned historically we took those with potential of the work shop floor and developed that potential for them to be designers. Also it is people at the coal face, that generally have problems to solve and innovate. It would therefore appear to be preferable to educate people at the coal face and move them into design, than to educate people who by-pass experience at the coal face and who otherwise go onto design things that cannot be made or are otherwise dangerous to make or dangerous to operate.

Also a single degree in a single area of practice is a relatively trite qualification to place one amongst the learned elite of a profession, even masters and doctrate degrees are pretty pathetic. The learned elite should be learned across many disciplines and areas of practice, not narrowly focused. An ordinary degree should be foundational evidence of the capacity for self-learning, and it should not be necessary to keep returning to university to collect further awards as proof of learning. More over the journey through university is not the same as assessment of competence. Assessment of competence needs to be done independently of universities by the professional institutions and national accreditation bodies. The journey through some universities is an important part of the learning, the journey through most universities is a waste of time. Why spend 4 years being lectured to, when can learn in significantly less time. Why spend $2000 on a 2 day seminar when can buy a $100 reference manual and put to use immediately, or otherwise look through the book in a librray and conclude irrelevant rubbish in less than an hour.

For most people being a directed employee or member of a profession is far easier than going into business, than pursing an ideal, than setting out to solve a problem or develop a new technology, far easier than innovating. For innovation requires an opportunity, an idea and resources, and a willingness to take a risk.

What industry and society needs is for people in general to have a better idea of the goods and services it needs: and the dependent resources required to provide such. If we have a construction and mining boom, does that mean that we will have a massive surge in the need for engineers? No it doesn't. Things are designed once and built many times. The surge in demand is most likely for the people who can do the actual production work, and those who supervise the production and operations: and such does not require engineers. It does however require people with knowledge of the appropriate Technical Sciences.

We have been building up our universities and focusing on degrees as if that were the only indicator of intelligence. Yes we need more people with higher learning. But we need an independent examination and assessment board, so as to give proper recognition to prior learning and the extensive self-learning that takes place on the job. Businesses come and go, but people cannot get employment because they don't have formal recognition of their skills. Currently to gain recognition they are largely thrown into the education system where they are lectured to by people who know less than the students. Assessment and recognition needs to take place faster.

Further we need more training institutions to develop proficiency in the required competencies, rather than simply develop the basic competence. It is not good enough that a person has the necessary learning that they can pick up the aluminium structures code and learn how to design such structures, but that they have already developed significant experience and capability in the design of aluminium structures. Now if you were designing concrete structures everyday, you would not choose to do this. Now when the odd aluminium structure turns up in the office, you could turn it away, but chances are it will come straight back. So concrete structures may be where the training needs to start, but competence and proficiency in other materials needs to be developed along the way, and preferably before projects turn up.

We can train concrete designers, but do these individuals need to pursue professional development to expand their skills in the breadth of civil engineering, structural engineering, architecture or production and operations management? If primarily concerned with pre-cast concrete modules, then producton and operations management, manufacturing engineering and mechanical engineering may be the preferred skill development areas, to develop and improve production and handling of the concrete units. If primary area of practice becomes structural analysis rather than the concrete design, then structural engineering, applied mechanics, advanced mathematics, aerospace structures and naval architecture may be the areas for continuing professional development. For the most part, the required knowledge will not be covered by any single existing degree. After getting any such degree further self-learning will be required to cover that relevant to the job at hand, and not covered by any degree in any case: and probably never likely to be.

Self-learning is fundamental to the entire exercise of planning, design and management. For those with a trade self-learning is fundamental to working with new materials and new technologies.

A person can choose to spend their spare time playing video games and pursuing other unproductive activities or they can spend some of their time paying attention to the world they live in and developing further skills to ensure their survival in that world. Getting a view of the big picture as it were.

Train of thought interrupted.

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Previously Posted on Metamorphs Journal Blog as a page.