Addressing the Engineering Skills Gap: Lessons from the SEFI 2017 Conference Proceedings

(Talk presented at the 6th Annual Symposium of the UK & IE Engineering Education Research Network at the University of Portsmouth, 01-02 Nov, 2018)

Introduction

Since the turn of the century, employers have consistently expressed concern on graduate work-readiness in general, and a perceived lack of engineering and professional skills amongst engineering graduates in particular (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2007, Wakeham, 2016). This is despite efforts by engineering education providers to address these concerns. This study is an attempt to shed light on how individual engineering educators and institutions are addressing the perceived lack of engineering and professional skills amongst their students. It is hoped that findings from this study will stimulate sharing of best practice and hopefully foster sector-wide collaborative approaches to dealing with the problem.

For the purposes of this study, I used content analysis (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) to review the contents of the abstracts of all the articles presented on the engineering skills thematic track at the SEFI 2017 conference. The European Society for Engineering Education, SEFI, is a network of engineering educators across Europe, and its annual conference is a key event that is highly regarded within the engineering education sector in Europe and beyond (European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), 2017b). Given the profile of SEFI within Europe and beyond, the deliberations at SEFI conference can give an indication of the current state of engineering skills provision within European engineering education.

Purpose of this study

The purpose of this study was to achieve four objectives. First, I sought to identify the key engineering skills that are currently the focus of attention within the engineering education sector. Second, I wished to identify at which level of the engineering education curriculum that these engineering skills are being considered. Specifically, I wished to identify whether the focus of the authors was at pre-university level, undergraduate, masters, PhD or early career graduate level.

Third, I wished to establish the unit of strategic focus of engineering skills provision, specifically, whether it is at module level, programme level, departmental or institutional level. Given the hierarchical ordering of education provision within engineering, a preponderance of provision at module level would indicate that the primary driver for engineering skills provision is mainly the individual academic, whilst a preponderance of provision at programme level or higher would indicate a more strategic departmental and/or institutional approach towards the provision of engineering skills.

Finally, I wished to identify current and emerging trends in the provision of engineering skills within the engineering education curriculum. Given the continued perceived gap between the engineering skills expected of graduates by employers, and the actual skills that graduates actually bring with them into industry, this study will be of interest to a number of stakeholders in engineering education. These stakeholders include policy makers in government and industry, employers, providers of engineering education, individual academics and students.

Method

Content analysis can be defined as “a research method for the subjective interpretation of the content of text data through the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes or patterns” (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005, p.1278). In this analysis, I focussed on three items, namely the type of engineering skill(s) described in the article, the educational level where the skill is delivered, and third, the strategic level of focus, be it module, programme, departmental or institutional level. Using these categories, I reviewed all the abstracts of the 36 articles presented at the SEFI 2017 conference and published in the conference’s proceedings (European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), 2017a) .

With regard to the type of engineering skills, I used an inductive process whereby I extracted and categorised the skill types as I went through the abstracts. As a result, I came up with a list of  ten categories which, amongst others, included communication skills, leadership and teamworking, employability/engineering and professional skills, innovation and/or  entrepreneurship, critical thinking, Industry 4.0 skills, problem solving and design skills.

Results and Findings

The 36 articles presented at the SEFI 2017 conference focussed on ten skill categories. Thirty-one of these articles reported on engineering skills education at undergraduate level, whilst three focussed on masters’ level. One other article was directed at improving employability and professional skills for doctoral students, whilst another looked at the acquisition of professional and engineering skills in the workplace by early career engineering graduates.

Six of the 36 articles focussed on the issue of engineering skills within engineering education curriculum in general. Of the remaining thirty articles, fourteen focussed primarily on module-level interventions, whilst nine looked at programme-level implementation of engineering skills education,  and  three focussed on the implementation of engineering skills across the entire engineering education provision of departments, faculties and institutions. The remaining four articles looked at the delivery of engineering skills by means of co-curricular projects.

The main focus of interest of the 36 articles was on employability and professional skills. This was followed closely by innovation and entrepreneurship skills. Together these four categories constituted almost 50% of the articles presented on the engineering skills thematic track at the SEFI 2017 conference. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership and teamworking skills were also covered extensively at the conference. Together, these skills were covered in 41% of the articles that were presented. In addition, English language competence was also cited as important engineering skill.  Generally, coverage of these skills at the SEFI 2017 conference is consistent with the range of skills that employers perceive to be lacking in recently graduated engineers (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2007, Wakeham, 2016).

The analysis of the SEFI 2017 conference abstracts relating to engineering skills also suggest the emergence of new skills that engineering academics are focussing on. For instance, two articles focus on the development of graduate engineering skills for the emerging 4th industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 (Lasi et al., 2014).  In addition, it appears that academics are beginning to pay attention to the development of appropriate pedagogies for delivering engineering skills within the curriculum (Kersten, 2018), as evidenced by the coverage of the topic by two of the 36 articles in SEFI 2017 conference proceedings.

Conclusion

Findings from this study indicate that whilst academics primarily focus on the delivery of the key skills that have been identified by employers as inadequate in current and past engineering graduates, some are beginning to look at the provision of engineering skills that may be required in future workforces. The study also suggests that curriculum interventions aimed at improving engineering skills are mainly carried out at the level of the module by individual academics. However, as some of the abstract contents suggest, the issue of engineering skills is increasingly being addressed at programme level or departmental and institutional level. This may therefore suggests that academic managers and leaders are increasingly paying attention to the issues pertaining to graduate skills and work-readiness that employers have been raising consistently over the past few years.

References

EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION (SEFI). Proceedings of the 45th SEFI Annual Conference 2017. In: ROCHA, J. C. Q. J. B. J., ed. 45th SEFI Annual Conference 2017, 2017a Azores, Portugal. SEFI — Société Européenne pour la Formation des Ingénieurs

EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION (SEFI). 2017b. SEFI [Online].  [Accessed 21 September 2018].

HSIEH, H.-F. & SHANNON, S. E. 2005. Three Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis. 15, 1277-1288.

KERSTEN, S. 2018. Approaches of Engineering Pedagogy to Improve the Quality of Teaching in Engineering Education. In: DRUMMER, J., HAKIMOV, G., JOLDOSHOV, M., KÖHLER, T. & UDARTSEVA, S. (eds.) Vocational Teacher Education in Central Asia: Developing Skills and Facilitating Success. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

LASI, H., FETTKE, P., KEMPER, H.-G., FELD, T., HOFFMANN, M. J. B. & ENGINEERING, I. S. 2014. Industry 4.0. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 6, 239-242.

ROYAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING 2007. Educating engineers for the 21st Century. London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

WAKEHAM, W. 2016. Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability. London: Great Britain. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

 

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