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Professional development for engineers: expand your mind

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Knowledge expansion is high on the agenda for the engineering sector, but what are the implications of continued learning for you and for the industry?

Large-brained Homo sapiens are built to learn, we continue to do it throughout our lives and nowhere is this more important than in the tightly-packed grey matter of the engineer. From the moment you embark upon an engineering career you join a pathway of lifelong learning, but what’s the big story around professional development? Why does it matter and who does it benefit?

Professional development helps you to make the most of your potential and maximise your employability throughout your career; vital in an industry rife with rapidly advancing technology and in a job market which is always changing. It keeps engineers across the industry competitive and, in return, an employer’s most-valued asset, its finely-tuned workforce, if nurtured effectively, will improve a company’s marketability, efficiency and profitability.

A skilled workforce is not only more efficient and motivated, but is also more able to adapt to change and keep up with developments in industry and with competitors. As Pamela Wilson, engineering engagement manager at BAE Systems, says: “Being an engineer at BAE Systems means that you are continuously being trained and developed, whether this is structured training as it is for apprentices and graduates or on a case-by-case basis dependent on future role or specific project needs. It plays a vital part in BAE Systems’ plans for the future.”

When leaving formal education, the learning doesn’t stop. Aspiring professionals quickly recognise the requirement to demonstrate their engineering knowledge and many embark upon the route to becoming professionally registered.

Since engineering covers a multitude of disciplines and professions, several different professional statuses exist to reflect the extensive array of skills and competences within them all. The main chartered qualifications are Chartered Engineer (CEng) and Chartered Physicist (CPhys). Engineers can also register as an Engineering Technician (EngTech), Incorporated Engineer (IEng), or ICT Technician (ICTTech).

The regulatory body of the engineering profession in the UK, the Engineering Council, is responsible for setting the standards of competence and commitment that individuals must demonstrate to become professional registered engineers and technicians. Laid out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC) and the Information and Communications Technology Technician (ICTTech) Standard, the principles are internationally recognised and supported by the professional engineering bodies.

Commenting on the importance of lifelong learning, Katy Turff, head of professional standards at the Engineering Council, says: “Professional development is a vital part of engineering careers. With technologies moving at a rapid rate, employers must ensure that their staff are kept up to date, but it is also the responsibility of the individual to keep learning and developing as the engineering world evolves.”

Professional registration is a major milestone, a marker of achievement and also the start of a continuing process of learning and development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a recognised way of making sure professional competences can be demonstrated throughout an engineer’s career, from the early days into retirement.

All members of professional engineering institutions (PEIs) have an obligation to undertake CPD, whatever their career stage, and many professional bodies provide support to assist members with their career development. CPD can take a variety of different forms with informal learning through the challenges and opportunities of working life. This can then be supplemented with structured activities such as courses, distance-learning programmes, involvement in professional body activities, and relevant voluntary work.

The PEIs licensed by the Engineering Council advise and support their members on CPD in a number of ways, such as providing guidance, resources and mentoring programmes.

The IET supports engineers and technicians throughout their careers and encourages its members to undertake professional development, with a scheme in place to assist members through the process. As IET professional development manager Dick Bacon explains: “The IET provides a full CPD planning, recording and annual declaration service for its members through its online tool, Career Manager. Members are directed to ways of undertaking CPD by the TWAVES acronym for Training, Work Experience, Academic study, Events and Seminars, and Self Study; and professionally active members are recommended to achieve at least 30 hours of CPD per annum.”

In addition, the IET is set to launch a brand new online training portal next year. The IET Academy will deliver a suite of CPD and educational resources for IET members, non-members and students. As IET publishing director Amanda Weaver explains: “Using our brand and market reach, the IET Academy will deliver rigorous, competency-based, differentiated and university-accredited learning pathways developed in partnership with industry and academia.”

The digital delivery of multidisciplinary pathways will provide flexible and reflective learning opportunities for all levels of engineers, while at the same time benefitting engineering employers by providing common levels of competency and skills for employees. Weaver adds: “Through multidisciplinary, flexible learning and training pathways delivered via an easy-to-use digital interface, the IET Academy is scalable to any size of workforce, enabling real-world skills application.”

One of the key aspects of recording CPD is reflecting on the learning gained. Rob Smith, an IMechE Fellow and representative on the Engineering Council Board, says: “The IMechE strongly supports the Engineering Council’s guidance that CPD should focus on reflective practice and therefore that it should be entirely self-directed. We simply advise that CPD is anything which enables, enhances or maintains personal knowledge and/or competence and it is up to the individual to determine what these activities may be in the light of their own personal unique circumstances. In order to get the most from CPD activities, best practice is that it is planned, undertaken and then reflected upon.”

It’s important that CPD is reviewed regularly. The professional development cycle is a continuous process and it is only through reviewing CPD that plans can be formulated for the next steps, ensuring that goals remain relevant and appropriate.

PEIs are now in preparation for the Engineering Council’s aspiration that by January 2017 all PEIs will have introduced a policy of random reviewing of professionally active registrants’ CPD returns. Currently, PEIs are obliged under the Engineering Council’s Registration Code of Practice to monitor their registrants’ CPD, but the nature of that monitoring is left to individual PEIs to decide.

Katy Turff explains the ambition behind this new policy: “Broadly the aim is to encourage and strengthen a culture in which members of professional engineering institutions engage in CPD and take ownership of their own learning and development. The Engineering Council believes that adopting this approach across the engineering profession should help all registrants to plan and reflect upon their learning and development, and thus benefit them, their employers, and society.”

Turff emphasises that the Engineering Council is not seeking to prescribe how institutions implement mandatory reviewing and, indeed, a number of institutions already have systems in place. However, she adds that “it was felt to be timely for a general review to make sure that society at large was assured that professional engineers and technicians took seriously their obligations to maintain and develop competence, and members of the profession understood their obligations”.

Encouragingly, ahead of the aspirational target, there has been a growth in the number of institutions that have opted to license the Engineering Council’s online system, MyCareerPath, for members to plan and record professional development. A total of 29 institutions have adopted the system, which now includes functionality to support auditing of records. “Whichever system is implemented by each institution, one result of sample monitoring across the profession will mean that members will expect to submit evidence of their CPD when requested,” says Turff.

In this respect, the IET is already ahead of the game. As Bacon says: “The IET CPD Review Scheme has been running over three annual cycles since 2013 as a voluntary opt-in service, and has steadily attracted participants enabling us to optimise the review process and the functionality of Career Manager to be ready for the random review cycle beginning in 2017. Several thousand members are already using the CPD functions in Career Manager and from the three completed cycles to date the average annual CPD hours achieved is three to four times the recommended minimum.”

From 2017, the IET will randomly select a sample of members’ CPD records for the previous year for review by registered engineer volunteers. “Feedback will be provided to those whose records are reviewed on such aspects as coverage, depth and the quality of their reflection on their CPD activities; the aim being to provide guidance on how to improve,” says Bacon.

If the current activities of PEIs and leading engineering employers are anything to go by then professional development is very much a proactive, evolving beast, adapting and changing to meet current and future requirements as the world around it shifts.

In terms of evolving trends, the IET’s Weaver thinks engineers will want to be able to do CPD wherever they are: “Mobile solutions are gaining ground: to be able to build an e-portfolio of skills and learning which can be transferred from one role to another. Gamification is also widely referred to as being an emerging trend in the learning market.”

As Rolls-Royce’s capability consultant – engineering and innovation, Anna Taylor adds: “We know that our employees’ CPD is critical for future innovation. As technology changes so must we. We ensure our employees have the most up-to-date skills in order to meet our customer’s requirements now and in the future. While we can’t predict the future we must all be willing to learn and develop to ensure we remain current.”

If Homo sapiens’ best adaptive strategy is the ability to continuously learn, then the engineering sector will always be able to meet future engineering challenges.

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