Robin Hill: Here's a much better way to produce more engineers

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Engineering graduates in this country find themselves at the mercy of an otherwise disinterested employment market said Robin Hill. Photo / Supplied
Engineering graduates in this country find themselves at the mercy of an otherwise disinterested employment market said Robin Hill. Photo / Supplied

It may be true that New Zealand universities are not producing the right mix of graduates, but that is no reason for Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce to issue threats to our universities in an attempt to make them take on more engineering students.

Universities are first and foremost a place where intellectual thought, research and reasoning is intended to thrive, not as factories to churn out degrees in response to a government's grand vision.

Governments come and go. We cannot allow political ideology to dictate how our universities are run and what courses they should offer. The very people we rely on to impart the skills Mr Joyce requires would, I believe, simply refuse to take up positions in such sterile environments.

Not everyone has the aptitude to undertake engineering study. It is a difficult degree course and should not be seriously undertaken by anyone who does not possess very good skills in mathematics and logical reasoning.

I would also add from my 30-plus years of professional engineering experience, that it should not be undertaken by anyone without very good verbal skills, since so much of what we do requires the ability to accurately distil complex issues into clear and concise language for a variety of audiences.

Even if Mr Joyce were to wave a magic wand and create double the number of places, the only way this nation could produce more engineers would be through admitting an even larger number of overseas students or by compelling our universities to lower their entrance standards.

Neither of these routes will achieve what Mr Joyce wishes. Most of the engineering graduates we produce are woefully unprepared to step straight into a professional engineering career. It has always been so.

Professional engineering development of the kind needed to turn a raw graduate into a confident and useful engineer used to be (in the 1970s and 80s) undertaken by large organisations such as the Ministry of Works and NZ Rail. Within these organisations a strong culture of mentoring and supervision was allowed to flourish. Similar programmes existed within larger private companies. Of the government organisations that have survived, none have anything like the training programmes they once had and the private companies have greatly reduced their cadet schemes.

The New Zealand organisations who most lament the shortage of engineering skills are largely the same organisations that have contributed to the present situation through abrogation of their responsibilities to provide suitable employment opportunities that include properly mentored post-graduate training.

The previous system resulted in very well rounded and capable engineers emerging 4 years or so after commencing employment. After this the graduate engineer could apply for registration as a Professional Engineer - a process that required a portfolio to be submitted, the professional interview and examination to be passed.

Pause for a moment to reflect what 4 years' commitment to an individual's post-graduate, professional training really means. It means a prolonged commitment to training an individual; providing an environment where that individual can acquire skills and be allowed to practise them in safety; where there is appropriate work and qualified supervision; where no matter what upheaval occurs elsewhere in the organisation the graduate's position is secure. In short the company, management and owners are committed to the philosophy and value of professional engineering training.

In my experience, engineering graduates in this country find themselves at the mercy of an otherwise disinterested employment market, where employers often expect to hire skills that are not yet developed and where a culture of poaching graduates with a modicum of experience and who show the slightest hint of any real acumen is endemic.

Until this unhealthy attitude is corrected; unless the number of engineering positions actually available and suitably rewarded increases; and while professional engineering remains viewed by New Zealand society as a career not worthy of aspiring to; Mr Joyce's ambitions in this area will remain frustrated.

Robin Hill is Engineering Manager, Director, Horizon Technology Ltd.

- NZ Herald

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