Sunday, October 09, 2011

On Education, Industrial Awards, and Mobility of Professionals

I don't know but it appears that the modern world is highly focused on collecting credentials rather than actually doing work. Given a shortage of work probably not too much of a problem. Yes, I know there is apparently a global shortage of engineers, and also locally a national shortage of engineers in Australia.

But I have to question that shortage, the Engineers Australia linkedIN group has a variety of discussions taking place relative to the problems of overseas people getting their degrees accredited by Engineers Australia (IEAust). Not sure why they need to do this. But then the WFEO accords and consequent mutual recognition agreements, such as the Washington accord, the Sydney accord and the Dublin accord only really relate to qualified technical professionals. To become a qualified technical professional, the degree, only provides the enabling competence as IEAust puts it. Then depending on local requirements have to obtain anywhere from 3 to 10 years experience before can achieve, registration, license or charter. This may involve writing a collection of career episode reports, and combining into a work practice report, taking a professional interview, presenting a portfolio of work, sitting additional exam's (eg. FE/PE exams or IStructE part 3 exam etc...). If achieve the local requirements for full professional status, and that meets requirements of the WFEO accords, then mutual recognition holds and have the potential for mobility between countries.

However recognition of qualifications alone, doesn't mean going to get a job overseas, there are immigration issues, need to speak the language, and local experience requirements.

Those that finally have got accreditation of their degrees are apparently having trouble with local experience. Though I doubt the local experience is really the problem. Most jobs advertised require some 5 to 10 years experience: these are not jobs for graduate engineers. People who need accreditation of their degree are clearly not qualified engineers. The global shortage of engineers is not for graduates, for that matter it is not really for engineers. The real shortage is for highly experienced and competent persons with respect to established technologies, and highly innovative people with respect to unresolved problems.

Professional engineers, within engineering organisations governing the profession, having designed and defined an engineering team, have failed to educate practicing professional engineers about the differences in the membership of the team, and consequently professional engineers are failing to give the other members of the team the opportunity to put their education to work.

Part of the problem resides in past shortages of work, resulting in inflation of qualifications: thus a job that was previously the domain of an engineering associate has been raised to that of an engineer: the work complexity has not increased, and the person with a B.Eng in such job is never going to get experience required to achieve professional status: but since they can call themselves an engineer in anycase, what do they care about professional status? The problem however is that it produces an incorrect count of the necessity for engineers.

Up until the recent introduction of Federal industrial awards, in South Australia (SA), we had an award for draughtsmen and technical officers. This award covered drafters, engineering technicians, and engineeing associates. All 3 of these groups likely to have had a formal education of 2 years duration, so the duration of the education is not relevant to competency and capability. The Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) is based on competency and level of responsibility, not duration, though recently some guide line durations have been introduced. Basically AQF-6 (Associate Degree) upwards are university based qualifications, and AQF-6(Advanced Diploma) downwards are TAFE qualifications.

Apparently, the IEAust wasn't happy that engineering technologists and engineers were both AQF-7, since both have bachelor degree. So IEAust apparently responsible for honors degree AQF-8 being included, though 4 year professional degrees lost honors status some time back. It is also nonsense. Architects typically have a 5 year degree or 2 x 3 year degrees: the typical programme a 3 year degree in architectural studies, followed by time in practice, then return for the professional 3 year degree in architecture. There are other professions which comprise of a 2 stage study programme, resulting in 2 degrees. It should also be noted that from an industry employment viewpoint, not everyone goes onto to complete the 2nd stage and get the 2nd degree: it has no relevance to their employment.

That is part of the problem, professions have little relevance to the needs of industry and society, professional organisations are in some ways attempting to resurrect the restrictive practices of the old guilds. Science however is held partially responsible for the decline of guilds, along with national legislation and regulations. For example building codes specify requirements for buildings, whether prescriptive or perfromance based, the knowledge becomes public, and secret knowledge held inside guilds no longer acceptable: it has to become disclosed. Structural mechanics provides a disclosed method of validating adequacy of a building structure: so some secret ritual to appease the gods so that a building doesn't fall down, ceases to be accepted. Consequently mechanics institutes teaching artisans technical science, starts becoming alot more acceptable than the secret knowledge held by the guilds, and people outside the guilds start practicing and supplying more acceptable product than that supplied by the guilds. Some guilds cease to exist, others adopt the new learning, and become the examining and qualifying authorities. But still, whether guild, professional association, society, institution or union, there is some unwarranted restriction of practice already in place, or attempts are made to put such restrictions in place. Sure protection of the public is usually raised as the basis of the restriction, but that is generally misleading and invalid. The public is typically protected by regulatory and approval systems, with requirements for independent checks. Where licensing and restrictive practice is in place it is typically a relatively old practice and there is no conclusive evidence that such restrictions actually provide protection to the public. Arguments can tend to be presented either way, I favour arguments against licensing. Licensing tends to lead to self-certification, and code of ethics or not, tends to lead some approving things not in the public interest. Licensing tends to lead to monoply, escalation of prices and deliberate shortage of supply. Shortage of supply is achieved by making it difficult to enter the profession, and basing membership on requirements irrelevant to the task performed. Modern laws which protect economic competition, oppose granting monopolies to professions.

Having high standards to join a profession, is not opposed, having high ideals makes wanting to join the profession challenging and worthwhile. The objection is the shortage of supply. Requiring a building designed by a professional structural engineer is unacceptable, because it would tend to lead to restricted supply of buildings: when there are others who can carry out the design. For example engineering associates are capable of structural analysis and design, whilst the use of something like AS1684 timber framing code vastly simplifies the specification of timber framed houses which are structurally adequate. A engineering associate however is not likely to design a multistory building in a high seismic zone, or a bridge other than a short span foot bridge: they may however be involved in designing component parts or subsystems of such larger systems.

Universities and computers however have changed the nature of the workforce, engineering and otherwise. Traditionally designer-detailers would have done detailed design calculations, whilst the engineer concerned themselves with the analysis of the over all system. So for example whilst the engineer is calculating the bending moments in the individual elements of a multi-storey building, a design-detailer could be calculating stresses in beams already analysed and sizing concrete beams and determining reinforcement and producing the drawings specifying such requirements. The designer-detailer likley to have started career as a tracer, and moved onto drafter, and taken additional studies in the required technical sciences: their traing largely on the job working on real projects. The role of designer-detailer may be considered as a career for life, or a stepping stone towards becoming engineer. If no future positions for engineer in a company, then designer-detailer likely to be career for life, unless there is an opportunity to become engineer elsewhere. With more people going from school to university, the designer-detailer role displaced by graduate engineers. The role of engineer then becomes confused as does gaining the experience to become a fully fledged member of the profession.

The organisation becomes increasingly dysfunctional as more and more personnel become inexperienced graduates: both drafters and engineers. Many of the local South Australian consultancy businesses are like this. The "recession we had to have", resulted in shutdown of government departments and privatisation, along with lay offs from large businesses, almost over night there was a massive increase in consulting engineers, as those laid off set up sole proprietorships. Having established businesses these experienced engineers have no desire to show any loyalty to big business only to be laid off again, some do however provide services to the bigger consultancies on a contract basis. So some of the so called shortage of engineers is more a desire to have the experience back in-house at a lower cost. Whilst the IEAust is assisting with its graduate development programmes, and supply of mentors possibly external to a graduates employer organisation, there is still a lack of succession planning to sustain the technical workforce. That is largely because most of the effort is focused on the B.Eng and engineers is what we need: which is not so.

So first we have problem of professions defining idealistic requirements independent of industry needs, then a problem of educational institutions, universities and otherwise defining academic study programmes equally independent of industry needs, and a further problem of computer software and other technologies changing the industrial environment.

Technology has diminished calculation effort, first logarithms, then slide rules based on, then calculating machines, electronic calculators and finally digital computers. Engineer, structural analyst and stress analyst are different professions. The traditional engineer was more concerned with design, and supervising the implementation of such design. Engineering education in the 20th century however, shifted engineers into the role of structural/stress analyst and away from their traditional role. Hence the emergence of the problem of things being designed which cannot be built: a loss of understanding of their core function. The use of computer software is said to assist in a return to the core function. Computers can complete calculations in seconds, therefore don't need such a large team of people to assist in completing such calculations., and skill development doesn't have to be as focused on arithmetic or evaluating mathematical formulations. The problem is defining a new age profession whilst retaining past competencies, which are actually recently developed competencies anyway. The other problem is that other professions and occupations have arisen to take up those tasks engineers discarded as they moved away from their traditional role.

The environment is dynamic, and roles in industry are constantly changing. It is partly because of changing roles that occupational groups or professions are designed and defined by those dealing with the industrial relations system and the associated industrial awards. For example the metal industry had a multitude of job definitions and associated restrictive work practices. If I recollect correctly from my studies of industrial relations in the early 1990's, it was considered an achievement that some 109 jobs were reduced to some 63. I never saw the awards at the time, but the most recent I've seen there were 14 occupational wage levels: C14 to C1. Where C14 is a production worker with a few weeks of on the job training, and C1 is professional scientist or professional engineer. Though there were separate industrial awards for scientists, another for engineers, and still another for draughtsmen and technical officers. I say were because we are currently in a transition of moving towards more federal awards rather than state awards. Though national organisations like APESMA would have tended to make state awards for engineers similar. Anycase now have a federal award for technical professionals, and it covers scientists, engineers and information technologists.

Part of the drive for this rationalisation and grouping is to increase mobility in industry, and reduce industrial disputes. For example a weld slag chipper may have been prevented from sweeping the floor. On the one hand this protected the job of the person who swept the floor, on the other it was unproductive. Additionally it creates unwarranted ranking of job roles: neither chipping weld slag or sweeping floors is something to make a life long career out off, though some may wish to. Sweeping the floor in a hazardous industrial environment may require some training, but not necessarily less or more than chipping weld slag. The rationalised awards rank a multitude of such similar jobs into appropriate wage groups. The next issue then becomes developing a multiskilled workforce, which then leads to defining new occupational groups. From which then emerges qualification frameworks like the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF). Given that industrial awards and occupational classification tend to be based on formal education, it is likely that further simplification will result in one industrial award based on minimum wages for each of the 10 levels of the AQF. One of the things the AQF does is define core knowledge for various occupational groups, with electives. So having obtained core knowledge and graduated completing one set off electives, it doesn't require too much effort at some future date to take other electives to move over to another job function. The purpose of the AQF is to enable articulation from one occupation to another giving proper recognition to prior learning (RPL) whether obtained through formal education, on the job training, or self-learning. So building a portfolio of work as evidence of learning is an important aspect of obtaining an AQF certificate.

To move people from wage level C14 to qualified tradesperson at level C10, requires defining a skill set for an occupational group, which enables them to move between a multitude of job roles and job functions. Naming such occupations is also problematic. The change in materials and the change in technologies used changes many job functions and skill sets. A carpenter traditionally worked with wood, but when it comes to building construction likely to also work with steel and variety of other materials. They cannot be called builders because builders already defined and builders don't actually build anything but rather supervise building works. They cannot be called technicians because that is a more knowledge oriented activity than trade activity. Job titles consequently either remain and change meaning to reflect new role. Or in the main job titles just become meaningless and pointless, since they poorly describe the real skill set that the individual has. Individuals have similar problems to business in explaining to the public the services they can provide. Even within a business enterprise which chooses own internal job titles, the actual roles of various individuals may be distorted by the job titles assigned. Businesses restructure every so often, and assign different roles and job titles to better reflect internal operations: but it can still misrepresent real roles and responsibilities.

As I was saying computer software reduces the size of the engineering team required to complete calculations in a given time frame. So whilst an engineer could do the structural analysis whilst a designer-detailer designed members to the materials codes and worked on drawings, and this was carried out in parallel once the analysis under way: such work break down (WBD) between people no longer required. For structural analysis software can now rapidly carry out the analysis and size all the members, and increasingly generate the technical drawings aswell. So designer-detailers not required, and nor enitirely are drafters.

With the introduction of CAD many drafters replaced by CAD operators. The CAD operators only have a few weeks training in the use of CAD and have poor knowledge of a technical discipline: such as structural, mechanical or electrical etc...They also have poor knowledge of CAD. Increased training produces CAD technicians who have extensive knowledge of CAD but still poor technical knowledge. This adds to the dysfunction of engineering business organisations.

As the software becomes more complex with increasing integration of documentation and engineering assessment, there are calls to have more engineers use the software, rather than CAD technicians. But software is a specific tool and requires trained specialist for each software package. Such training not considered appropriate for engineers who should know the science behind the software. So there are emerging issues as to who should be building such virtual models and who should be responsible for them.

The other problem is an increasing dependence on such software. In many instances the use of the 3D virtual models is inappropriate and unjustified: it takes far too long to build the models and adds no value. But with diminishing skill sets concerned with more generic tools, there is inceasing dependence on such tools, and so increasingly inefficient tackling of projects with unwarranted delays. The real thing could have been built whilst they were playing with the 3D model. Task becoming increasingly more like a video game than real design.

I recently read somewhere a proposal for a 3 year bachelor degree in virtual modelling. I don't see the value in such things. All the time the solution to everything  is an high level academic degree. Such does not have anything to do with the task at hand, it is only concerned with status. Attract people by defining a degree, an AQF-7 qualification, and slotting people in at wage level C1, thus bypassing C14 to C2, and no where to go.

By rights moving from AQF-1 to AQF-10 should reflect increased depth of knowledge and increased responsibility level. Most professional degrees reflect breadth, not depth of knowledge. Also continuing professional development (CPD) requirements are seen by many as a grab for money, especially when weighting is used to diminish value of on the job learning and self-learning: and biased towards paid seminars and otherwise gaining higher academic awards. If actually practising engineering then always learning on the job. If not then probably operating at a level below engineer, on highly routine stuff.

It is this situation of persons not operating at the level of their academic award that needs to be resolved in industry. Persons with B.Eng set out to become professional engineers, cannot achieve and ignore profession. When the first required stepping stone should be to become engineering technician, no choice in the matter, that is where all start. If their job is at an advanced level, then shouldn't be too difficult to advance through technician, associate, technologist and finally achieve engineer status in a short time. For those with relatively simple jobs, they will get stuck at a lower level. But it is now clearer that they need to move on to another company to achieve full status as an engineer, or they need an external mentor to assist in putting their knowledge to use as an engineer and providing more value to their employer and raising their job function.

Another part part of the issue, is that people with an interest in design get stuck on engineering programs, which don't really provide for their interests, and 4 years is a long time. This can be achieved by proper articulation through the AQF levels from AQF-1 to AQF-9, with more industrial experience imposed between each level. So complete first year of B.Eng get AQF-5, complete 2nd year get AQF-6, and complete 3rd year get AQF-7 etc...But before get AQF-5, also have to complete AQF-1 to AQF-4. There then becomes a common core knowledge throughout the industry which all participants are aware of. For example everyone in the industry from trades people upwards can read technical drawings and specifications, and understands them.

Part of the current problem in industry is that occupations are now defined by educational institutions, rather than by industry. When defined by industry people progressed up through various positions in a business or stayed where they were. Those that progressed were aware of the skills of those below because thats where they came from. But with the education system controlling qualifications, people are coming from all over the place and slotted anywhere into the business organisation. So no one really knows the capabilities of their subordinates, and become surprised when the subordinate cannot do what is considered to be a common sense task. Problem is common sense is not common, it is environment and culture specific. School leavers have not spent long enough in the required industrial environment. If they have to get AQF-1, spend time in industry gain some experience and return to study for AQF-2, then a better understanding will be developed of an industry and its processes.

The training of an engineer, thus follows the more traditional route, from tracer, copy-drafter, drafter, design-drafter, to designer. From designer an increasing knowledge of scientific principles becomes necessary depending on the technology involved with. There are also issues of planning, supervision and management to consider, but these are really separate strands of study. Which is the reason to pay more attention to the AQF, than to professions. As a person goes in and out of industry moving from AQF-1 upwards, they will increasing reach a situation where they are offered a fulltime job, and otherwise given guidance to electives to study directions to take. In the main only qualitative understanding of science is required, followed by knowledge of established technology and supervisory skills. Rather than pushing towards AQF-9, better to have multiple AQF-6 qualifications. This not difficult because in the main will only require 1 year of fulltime study, or 2 years part-time, because the first year of such 2 year qualification will be a common core the earlier AQF-5 qualification. In other words a common core of broad technical science with diversions into more specialised areas. So for example not that difficult to cover civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, in 4 years, at the AQF-6 level. The current practice would be to define this as a B.Eng in some specific field such as say architectural engineering. I don't agree with such. For that matter I don't agree with the B.Eng in the first place: should have stayed with the 3 year B.Sc, with the applied technical fields being covered by additional awards such as graduate certificates. For that is part of the real problem, tradition put science into industry where it was applied and provided technical solutions. The B.Eng obscures what is added to the science as do many other professional degrees they should be scrapped, and get back to the B.Sc with something else to cover the applied practice. So an engineer for example more likely to have a B.A to cover the creative design, and a B.Sc to cover the scientific principles. But basic technical design only requires AQF-6 not AQF-8.

The idea is to get people interested, keep them interested, and have them progressing through qualifications from the very beginning. Don't want people leaving the industry, want them to find the right role and level. Some may have preference for planning and supervision so they get diverted to that quickly, others for design. Do not want to confuse industrial design and industrial management with engineering. Academic programmes for engineers are focused on the numbers, not design or management. I believe the young are being misled about what engineering is about. All the promotional programmes are biased towards building technology, not the engineering supposed to be promoting. From such progammes the school students should be taking up trade studies not engineering degree.

So really need to identify that which is unique to the engineer, and I mean in practice, not the foundational beliefs of those defining the profession and supposed subordinates. Engineering technicians, engineering associates and engineering technologists may work as subordinates to engineers, but all are more likely to work independently and subcontract work to engineers on an as needs basis. The actual operation of the industrial economic environment is complex, and we need to make far better of use of the available human resources. Not demanding that people spend increasing amounts of time in formal education before they can start to earn their own income. Got to get them into industry sooner, making use of acquired knowledge. Innovation occurs when people with a different knowledge base than those currently at the coal face are placed at the coal face. So cycle people between industry and formal education. The industrial revolution cascaded ahead because artisans studied technical science out of curiosity, either by reading or due to the availability of mechanics institutes and night schools. Rather than push a few to AQF-8, we should be ensuring that the minimum any employee has is AQF-6, anything less than AQF-6 and the person is still in a training and development programme. The first step however is to ensure everyone has an AQF-1 qualification, and in the main that requires providing evidence of prior learning. The primary step therefore is not going around teaching any one, but assessing them and recognising the learning that they already have.