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Continuing Education and the Time-Pressed Engineer

Winn Hardin

06 October 2015

Inquisitive and eager to understand new concepts, most engineers by nature are lifelong learners. So, while the concept of continuing education is not new, its importance has skyrocketed as engineers face continued pressures to remain agile and relevant in a demanding and ever-changing profession.

Central to the discussion of lifelong learning is the evolving engineering practice itself, coupled with the speed of technological development. For example, the rise of increasingly complex systems that integrate mechanical, electrical, control and computer systems requires engineers to have a basic understanding of the work performed by their peers in other disciplines.

While this collaborative interdisciplinary approach remains a critical component in university engineering departments as well as professional firms, engineering leaders have witnessed what they say is a move to transdisciplinary practice.

Craig Musselman, president of civil and environmental consulting engineering firm CMA Engineers.“Not only do engineers have to understand their specific areas of practice in greater depth, they need to couple that with practice capability in other areas of science, technology and engineering,” says Craig Musselman, president of civil and environmental consulting engineering firm CMA Engineers.

Vehicle connectivity is one example that requires “a whole different skill set—including a telecommunications perspective—that traditional automotive, commercial vehicle and aerospace engineers may not have,” says Andy Smart, director of society programs and industry relations for trade organization SAE International.

Furthermore, disruptive concepts like the Internet of Things and technologies involving advanced robotics and 3D printing also are significantly influencing the profession. These systems move so fast, that engineers “will need to reinvent their areas of expertise and skill levels to keep pace,” Musselman says.

The Mentoring Staircase

In addition to rapid technological developments, shifting demographics demonstrate the need for lifelong learning. According to SAE’s Smart, economic downturns and the resulting “rightsizing” of workforces have created gaps in the traditional hierarchy of experience levels notably among the young, mid-career and experienced professionals.

In the traditional hierarchy, senior engineers would provide on-the-job training to younger engineers. Although this approach remains the status quo in many organizations, it is reducing, Smart says. Instead, entry-level engineers are more likely to participate in professional organizations with their peers in other departments. Even so, they still recognize the importance of mentorship within their discipline, they just prefer to do it with people closer to their own age.

“The 24-year-old wants to know how the 29-year-old got to their position, and then the 30-year-old would like to talk to the 35-year-old,” says Smart. He calls this approach a “mentoring staircase,” as opposed to the traditional notion of “the young engineer talking to the old sage who has been there and seen it all.”

Addressing Challenges

As engineers face the changing nature of their profession, they are encountering a few obstacles that impact how—and when—they develop their technical and professional competencies. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding the time to devote to training “with the pressures put on the engineering workforce to do everything quicker, smarter, cheaper and more efficiently,” Smart says.

He points to the aerospace industry, which is forecasting increased demand for passenger and freight aircraft. That is good news for engineers, but an escalation in productivity may leave less room to hone professional skills. That is not necessarily bad news.

“We place a lot of emphasis on continuing education and far less on the experience component,” Musselman says. “And experience is every bit as important in the development of engineering capabilities.”

Considering business imperatives such as budget tightening and improved productivity, organizations may be wary to send engineers to tradeshows, conferences and seminars for professional development. Although these types of events may provide valuable networking opportunities and hands-on education, the availability of online learning tools has made travel to trade shows and even traditional classroom settings unnecessary in many cases.

A New Learning Environment

Online education ranges from live instructor-led courses to on-demand training. Engineering societies and trade organizations lead the way. For example, the manufacturing industry trade association SME offers more than 400 online classes on topics such as additive manufacturing, hardness testing and math for PLCs. Meanwhile, SAE International delivers classroom seminars over the web, complete with interactive Q&A and online forums.

Tony Glockler, co-founder of SolidProfessor.When it comes to staying abreast in design software, some people believe that if they learn a software program once—they don’t need to revisit it, says Tony Glockler, co-founder of SolidProfessor, which trains engineers, designers and students on multiple CAD and CAM platforms. However, the technology evolves so rapidly, that one-time training isn’t effective. “Software is dynamic, not static,” he says.

CAD and CAM software companies frequently add new capabilities and functionalities that allow engineers to automate tasks and create safer, better-performing designs with faster time-to-market. Organizations like SolidProfessor build their cloud-based training modules for various design software makers so that users can access information when they need it. As Glockler says, “The best time to learn something is when you run into a challenge.”

In addition, SolidProfessor aims to make topics and lessons easy to find through a search function. “Engineers don’t want to watch a 15-minute lesson in order to glean 30 seconds of information,” says Glockler.

Other resources have emerged to help guide engineers in continuing education. In 2013, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) published the first edition of the Engineering Body of Knowledge (EBOK). The document outlines 30 capabilities—categorized by basic/foundational, technical and professional practice—necessary for professional engineering practice.

Although EBOK sets the stage for engineers early in their careers, it applies across all engineering disciplines and experience levels. The competencies detailed in the EBOK include design, ethics, societal impact and engineering economics. NSPE views the guidelines as a continuum throughout engineering practice “learned by a variety of on-the-job experiences, webinars and seminars, and for some, additional graduate education,” says Musselman, who helped prepare it.

Engineering Competency Model released by AAES.Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor and the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) released an Engineering Competency Model in mid 2015. Divided into five tiers, the resource serves as a lifelong learning template that identifies the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for engineers to perform successfully in their fields. AAES works with industry leaders to ensure that the model accommodates changing skill requirements.


Who’s in Charge?

When considering all of the tools available for lifelong learning, engineers may question who is responsible for their continuing education—themselves or their employers? The answer usually falls somewhere in the middle.

“If you as an employer have an influx of younger engineers or plan to redeploy them throughout the organization, it is in your best interest to provide them technical training quickly,” SAE’s Smart says. “But the engineer is responsible for the engineer.”

Organizations are recognizing the value in adopting or maintaining a continuing education strategy. Musselman cites the example of an engineering organization translating its own body of knowledge into experience guidelines for entry-level civil engineers as they navigate their years of practice. The organization plans to distribute these recommendations to graduating seniors and encourage them to share the information with potential employers. That way employers can be sure that their new hires’ experience is both as deep and as broad, necessary in technical and professional practice capabilities.

In his own practice, CMA Engineers’ Musselman has integrated NSPE’s EBOK into the company’s performance evaluation process. After reviewing the engineer’s experience across different capability areas, “we focus on what they most need, typically in two or three different areas,” he says.

In order to adapt to rapid changes in technology, engineer demographics and the engineering practice itself, lifelong learning has become a must-have rather than nice-to-have. However, it is not always easy for engineers, to advance their skills as they spend time dealing with the day-to-day pressures of their job. From on-demand online learning models to continuing education guidelines developed by professional societies, engineers have more tools than ever to keep on learning as they develop products and infrastructure for a demanding world.

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Tony Glockler
About the Author

SolidProfessor Co-Founder and CEO, CAD junky, sailer, surfer and former world traveler (before kids, that is).