Saturday, September 22, 2012

Realising an innovative economy: a practical roadmap to ease the engineering skills shortage in Australia

Realising an innovative economy: a practical roadmap to ease the engineering skills shortage in Australia a report by Australian National Engineering Taskforce.( ANET )

An interesting report, but would be better if the parties which defined the engineering team didn't go confusing who the members of the team are within the introductory glossary. 

It should not be: "Engineers in all three occupations", but rather persons in all three occupations: for they are not all recognised as engineers. Further it doesn't take 3-5 years for them to be come chartered professional engineers, but rather 3 years to move from graduate to experienced within their occupational class, and then further period of development to become chartered within their occupational class.

The report also in arguing about difference between scientists and engineers, is still locked into an ideal based on manufacturing of human cogs for the machinery of industrial society. Graduating with a degree in either science or engineering does not make a person a scientist or engineer.

Progress in science and engineering requires imagination, creativity and ingenuity, formal education cannot impart such. Becoming a scientist or engineer is more a matter of personal attitude than formal education.

Science asks questions about the existing world, and uses the scientific method to answer those questions in a consistent manner which can be independently validated by others. Our education system is totally lacking in science. Education largely imposes accepted solutions without real opportunity to independently validate. 

{In other words haven't progressed much beyond that idea that the world is flat and at the centre of the universe and you are not permitted to question that. Difficulties which you may have in grasping models put forward due to own observations and perceptions of reality are irrelevant to education. You shall learn and join others in accepting the approved model.}

Engineering in contrast asks "what if" questions about potential changes to the existing world, and makes use of scientific knowledge to attempt to answer those questions. If the body of scientific knowledge is inadequate to answer the questions, then science is required to expand the body of scientific knowledge.

Both science and engineering requires people with the right attitude and also access to appropriate opportunities.

Designing the lintel above the window in a single storey house is not in the same league as designing a human habit floating in deep space beyond the orbit of Pluto. Placing focus on registration of professional engineers, and ever increasing academic qualifications is crazy. Shouldn't need a masters degree to design the lintel, shouldn't need a bachelor degree for that matter. The space station is a complex system, and the designer of such is responsible for the whole thing, but with reliance on the specialist capabilities of others to handle the details of subsystems. The designer of the lintel is not designing a complex system, and doesn't necessarily have to coordinate with others, and is directly responsible for the details. In placing an emphasis on pushing people through university programmes, we have largely lost the people capable of taking care of the details.

I agree with those that indicated wouldn't want an engineering associate designing a bridge. However, once again the bridge is a complex system. I would want the steel designed by an Engineering Associate (or Associate Technologist). The bridge engineer, decides on the form of the bridge which is most suitable for the geology and geography, and the technological skills in the available workforce. There is a lot concerned with the over all concept of the bridge. The Associate Technologist only needs concern themselves with all the issues of steel construction and its assessment against the approved codes of practice: whether the structure is a bridge, building, or machine structure. Their expertise should be steel its design, fabrication and construction. If the structure is part of a simple system then they can take it from concept to implementation without assistance. With appropriate craft and trade skills, and still simpler systems they can also actually build it themselves without assistance. In the main however expect others to actually build.

Now being able to dream is relatively easy. Drawing up a proposal also relatively easy. Assessing its fitness-for-function however can be complex, and often times building and testing prototypes easier than mathematical modelling based on scientific knowledge. Further having got specifications for something whether fit-for-function or not, it is necessary to have a workforce with appropriate skills to make the thing.

Which is where we have a cyclic problem. We need engineers to turn the dreams into something practical to implement, but we need trades people with higher skills than simply manual labour too actually implement the dream.

If we simply train more designers, we will have designs with nobody to make. If we simply train more trades people, we will have trades people with no work to do. We have to design and build a full industrial machine, and put it to work. The above mentioned report doesn't really address what it is that we need all these engineers for: just that there is a shortage and government procurement methods are inappropriate.

Engineers are not really trained: but born, and they need to be nurtured and grown slowly. The formal education system can produce those who work and think inside the box, and maintain the status quo, keep our existing systems running. opportunity is required to push outside the box.

Most of the programmes to introduced engineering to the young focus on making or otherwise on industrial design, they fail to fully address what engineers actually do. For one they don't programme CNC machine tools (the real robots of industry). In the real world it is difficult to separate the roles of trades, engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Those who operate in one role only, may see it has simple, but persons who operate in one role only are of limited value to a business enterprise. Those who have worked their way up from the shop floor can easily move from design to making. Noting that can design once, and make many times: so when the pressures on the CEO can always get down and get their hands dirty. The Machiavellian prince working alongside his subjects. Most modern CEO's and engineers too boot, are more in the role of the aristocracy which were sent to the guillotine.

Now creating properly articulated AQF programmes is a problem. Engineers want to get rid of the image of grease and dirt, but I say that is where the education needs to start. Too many academic engineers designing things which cannot be made: they may be able to assess that in the end-form, the product is fit-for-function, but have not conceived how raw materials can be transformed into that end-form with the physical properties expected to achieve the desired performance. For example the end-product may require high strength steel, but there is no way that the high strength can be obtained by casting, and there is no way the high strength steel can otherwise be machined. Then there are issues concerned with safety in handling, which may require the design of new tooling, jigs and fixtures and various temporary props and bracing systems. There is far to much reference and reliance on something called "standard industry practice". There is no such thing it doesn't exist. The only thing "standard" is a lack of knowledge, a lack of skill, and a lack of quality. None of which are actually desired.

Complex systems require building appropriate production systems and training an appropriate workforce. But once the system has been built then what? Is a water filtration plant a product, or a chunk of infrastructure? Considered as the latter the persons who designed and built it either become redundant or revert to simple operation and maintenance activities. Considered as a product, how many water filtration plants does the world population need, how can supply be turned into an effective business, how should the product be designed to be supplied on a routine basis, what customisations can be permitted? With the current infrastructure, government responsibility approach, the 2nd international decade of water will not reach its goals by 2015, and will fail as did the first. The systems implemented will not be sustainable and capable of keeping up with population growth.

Engineering is too narrow a focus. Henri Fayol pointed out many years back that engineers education was too technically focused, and management was in greater need. I contend however that it is important to have people who are technically focused, and sustain people who are: these people may well by the future Associate Technologists. Whilst engineering programmes have added more management content, and many engineers end up in management areas, there as also been shifts in the workforce that have resulted in decline   of technical design skills.

Infrastructure moved into operate and maintain mode requires more management skills. But once reaches the need for replacement, then the design skills are required again, but otherwise lost from industry. Management  doesn't require engineers. Here is a contrast. In the USA much on management was presented via the ASME, and from their the discipline of Industrial Engineering was born. Industrial Engineers sit the same breadth examination (NCEES FE/PE/exams) as engineers in other disciplines: that is mathematics, thermodynamics, optics, electrostatics and such. In the UK however, as I understand, instead of industrial engineering being born, industrial management was born. The actual job function is the same, the education far different. Members of the institute of industrial engineers (USA) have been debating a need for a brand change. They think engineer is too much associated with grease and dirt, which is not much use for promoting the value of industrial engineering to health care or office work. In Australia we have industrial engineers (IE), but they are at odds with other engineers who are generally represented by Engineers Australia (IEAust), IE's have their own institute, and whilst many MIIE's may have doctrates they do not meet the criteria for becoming MIEAust's: this is a consequence of management focus.

My contention is that it is wasteful to educate people with B.Eng(civil or mechanical) and then MBA's if it is management functions which need to be addressed. We should be graduating more IE's and fewer CE and ME's in the first instance. But preferably IE's with the same fundamentals as the CE and ME's, not just management focus.

We are graduating people in a multitude various administrative, business and management disciplines. However quantity surveyors, construction managers, cost accountants, and project managers , are neither construction engineers or manufacturing engineers. Further manufacturing engineering itself seems to have diminished to manufacturing management and got away from the physics of the processes. {I'm a member of IIE(Aust.) and the manufacturing society of Australasia (ManSA). ManSA is currently under administration by IEAust due to declining numbers: in essence it was to focused on management and getting away from the hardware of manufacturing. When I studied manufacturing engineering it was about the mechanics of say a lathe, and the cutting process. About robotics and mechanical handling, and automation. Not about the management of people and the processes involved in, for that activity is the field of industrial engineering and industrial management.}

So that which may have once been done by an engineer or an architect as part of a larger job function, may now be done by persons with B.Bus or B.Mngt with a much narrower more specialised job function but more involved. With ever increasing regulations need people familiar with the constraints imposed on business and workers. Many small businesses are often exempt from much of the regulation (size measured by number of employees, not revenue), ad business grows and takes on more employees it becomes necessary to implement more administrative systems as required by regulations.

So whilst engineers in the past have looked to management as a means of increasing their income, such positions are no longer readily available, because the available management positions have little to do with management of technical systems: but more to do with management of people and administration of regulations.

Australia's industrial relations system is also crazy, in that to increase income, simply return to university and get higher education. Thus all an engineering associate needs do is get a B.Eng to demand a higher salary, they do not have to actually contribute any greater value to the business. The result is they become a drain on the business rather than a benefit.

We need to separate the issue of regulatory compliance from ingenuity, and innovation. We have a shortage of innovative people, but we also do not have an environment conducive to innovation. At the same time we lack people with adequate competence to ensure a high level of compliance with required regulations and codes of practice. Further more we also lacking in the people with the necessary trade skills to work on complex projects.

But this is probably largely to do with too many independent small businesses, people seeing higher security in being self-employed: knowing who their clients are and where their work comes from. Not wanting to show loyalty to large disloyal business enterprises or government authorities who also keep laying off more and more people.

There has to be a vision to which all these skills are going to be applied. There is no such vision. Industry wants the skills but what do you want them for? If become a qualified welder, where are the steel structures? If become a structural engineer, where are the structures required? What are the real demands?  Private enterprise: You wanted a free market based economy, you have now largely got it, but what is it going to supply, and how? Who are you, want are you doing for the people, and what do you want the people to do for you in return? Purely based on money, barking up the wrong tree.