The true value of qualifications

New research from the Chartered Management Institute reveals the importance of qualifications for the engineering manager.

One could hardly accuse engineering managers of being under qualified. Indeed, most are recognised in their particular area of technical expertise, but when it comes to management qualifications, far fewer have sought the opportunity to become officially accredited.

This discrepancy between skill sets, where the perceived importance of recognising sector knowledge outweighs formal managerial qualifications, happens in many industries. Graduates emerge from university with a technical discipline and, as their individual experience grows, so too does their role and responsibilities. They take on a position in management and are expected to inspire and motivate individuals in their team, not to mention managing budgets and implementing business plans designed to drive the organisation's strategic goals. Many of these new managers have to fulfil this role with little in the way of professional development to help build the skills needed to be a good manager.

As a typical engineer's career progresses, many find themselves taking on this role of an 'accidental' manager. It's a phrase that describes individuals who have reached the level where they are leading a team as a result of proving their technical abilities, rather than their skills to manage effectively. There are, as with any discipline, elements of management that can, and should, be learned on the job. But for managers to feel confident and be successful in the long-term, experience should go hand-in-hand with continuous professional development. Giving managers the opportunity to undertake management qualifications will not only expose them to best practice management techniques, but also give them confidence in their abilities which, on completing the course, can be officially recognised
and accredited.

Put a value on it

New research by the Chartered Management Institute explored a wide range of benefits for the individual in taking a nationally recognised management qualification. Greater financial rewards came out as a significant incentive, with over half of managers agreeing that they offered the potential for higher earnings. The impact of taking a qualification on earnings, does depend on the type of qualification you set out to achieve. Although academic qualifications were thought to have the biggest impact on individual earnings, vocational awards above graduate level such as diplomas and professional qualifications also have a significant positive influence on earnings. 

Respondents to the Institute's survey also reflected on how qualifications would impact on their future employability. The majority agreed that management qualifications improved their chances of employment and said that gaining an award also enhanced their promotion prospects. It seems from these results that individuals believe that achieving qualified management status will make them more 'portable'. These statistics also emphasise the importance of having broad-based management knowledge which is applicable in a variety of contexts. As managers move roles within their organisation or decide to move to another organisation, professional management qualifications offer them skills that can be transferred to different jobs and challenges. Having these qualifications is evidence to employers that individuals are adaptable and capable of taking on broad new roles.

Besides the tangible benefits of management qualifications in terms of employment, career prospects and financial rewards, there are wider personal benefits to undertaking a course of this nature. For example, 84 per cent of engineering managers in the research said that taking a management qualification had increased their self-awareness. In other words, having the opportunity to step back, analyse and reflect on their management style is a good way of enabling managers to be more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. The research also found that individuals who had completed a management qualification benefited from an enhanced sense of confidence at work. Through having a better understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of management, respondents said they were reassured of their abilities which gave them more confidence to lead and motivate their teams.

As well as these personal benefits, individuals in the research pointed out that the learning process itself enhanced their chances of delivering successful results. Through attending course seminars and lessons, individuals are exposed to other managers providing them the chance to share ideas and learn from a wider range of skills and experiences than they have access to within their own working environment. 

Finding the right focus

In addition to the transferable benefits offered by generic management, it can also be beneficial for engineering managers to focus on a specific area of management which will be relevant to them in their daily working lives. One example of this might be project management. Engineering managers often find themselves responsible for co-ordinating and managing programmes or projects, so in selecting a relevant qualification, they should consider one which is tailored to nurturing and applying these skills in real workplace situations. 

With this in mind, many engineering managers would benefit from a specialist leadership and management qualification such as the Diploma in Programme and Project Management. This qualification breaks down project management into its core elements and includes modules on risk and quality management, as well as how to handle project contracts. The qualification also covers change and configuration management, so individuals can develop the skills to help ensure that plans and deadlines are met despite any issues and challenges that might emerge along the way.

The particular value of professional qualifications such as the Diploma in Programme and Project Management is that they combine classroom theory with actual experience, so that managers have the opportunity to apply the skills contained in the syllabus to their daily activities at work. After all, unless this transfer of learning is achieved, it is far more difficult for qualifications to have a noticeable impact on productivity and the individual's ability to deliver results. It is, therefore, important that the design of the course and the motivation of the learner are geared towards the practical application of skills on the course. By putting the management theory they have discussed formally into working practice, delegates on these courses receive a learning experience which is both more memorable and applicable to their actual role while working towards their qualification. 

Ultimately, qualifications must have this practical application if they are going to help engineering managers achieve their potential and be successful in the workplace. In the Institute's research, from the perspective of individual managers, professional diplomas and MBAs are approximately equally rated in terms of their impact on managers ability to deliver results. Academic qualifications scored more highly than vocational qualifications in terms of the perceived impact on earning potential. 

Productivity and performance

But what about the employer's perspective on management qualifications? Clearly they have different reasons for wanting managers to be qualified. The Institute's research also explored the types of benefits that organisations might seek to gain from encouraging and supporting the uptake of management qualifications.

There has been a growing body of evidence which shows the impact of management skills on employers' productivity and performance and separate studies looking at the impact of qualifications in general on productivity. However, research to date has not looked specifically at the links between management qualifications and performance. The survey found that, like individuals, organisations, could identify specific reasons as to why qualifications would be beneficial to engineering organisations.

When asked about the impact of management qualifications on all levels on the business, the majority of employers agree that productivity gains, staff attraction rates and professional reputation improved. However, although organisations thought that all types of qualifications were important, academic qualifications and high level professional qualifications, such as Diplomas and professional management qualifications, came out most highly rated. For example, when it comes to improving the overall output and performance of the business, more than two-thirds said that professional management qualifications had a positive impact. Although courses such Doctorates and Foundation Degrees were thought to have less direct impact, they are still valued among employers with over half saying that they improved productivity. 

Leaping hurdles

Of course, there are still a number of barriers that engineers and their employers will have to overcome if qualifications are going to live up to their expectations. In the Institute's research, the majority of respondents thought the success of management qualifications would depend upon the overall qualifications system becoming clearer and, as a result, more accessible. It seems that the system is too confusing with 65 per cent saying that there are too many different types of qualification and 51 per cent claiming that the levels are too confusing. However, one of the most widely felt drawbacks is the impact of study on a manager's time. So in addition to being confused over the various types of qualification available, the majority of people who responded said that doing extra qualifications diverts energy away from family commitments, personal life and other interests.

Finding the funds

There is also the issue of financing a qualification which is often an expensive commitment. In the research, many said they would use their own personal savings for funding qualifications. Others suggested they would seek match-funding or part-funding from their employer.

Organisations have a key role to play in helping managers improve their skills through qualifications. Not only can they assist when it comes to funding, but employers can provide additional support for managers taking on a management qualification. 

If the key barriers are the complexity of deciding which course to take and the sacrifice of giving up personal time, employers can step in to offer support. For example, offering study leave for managers doing qualifications can ease the pressure that comes from trying to balance a qualification with full-time employment and personal commitments.

The organisation's personnel department, relevant sector skills council or professional body should all be ready to provide advice and information to help individuals decide which qualifications are right for them.

Going back to the finding that qualifications are most useful only when applied in practice, organisations can play a key role. For example, managers who have gained skills through qualifications must be given the chance to use these new capabilities. Organisations might consider offering managers new projects which test and develop their new skills in view of supporting their newly qualified status.

In conclusion, managers and their organisations clearly need to work together to make sure that they are realising the full value of qualifications and achieving business success.

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