Too often these objectives are confused, but the difference is vital to the future of the engineering industry by Alan Reeve

How often have you heard the comment from companies that HNC/HND trained technicians are more useful than university educated graduates when starting someone on a new career in instrumentation and control?

However, this grade of employee may well be frustrated later on when management positions are blocked. It is also difficult for the new graduate who often thinks he is trained to apply all he has learned at university. Unless he has a degree which has been combined with industry training, he is rapidly brought down to earth when he finds that he will be lucky if he can apply 10% of his hard-earned knowledge.

For the HNC/D specialist, he/she could find that drawings have to be signed or safety cases (to IEC1508) reviewed by a CEng with, arguably, less experience and overall competence. Couple this with the philosophy that anybody over 55 is overdue for retirement and can be replaced by somebody 30 years younger at a reduced salary, and you have a recipe for discontent and eventually falling standards.

Over 100 replies were received following recent letters in C&I about courses to be offered at the university of Greenwich next year on process measurement and control engineering.

One of these was from Douglas Bell at BPChemicals in Grangemouth. He is a DCS engineer working with TDC3000, Provox and Spectrum systems at BP.

He is progressing from an apprenticeship as an instrument technician with an HNC to chartered engineer, which will take him five years part time. He is currently studying obsolete TDC 2000 technology at Falkirk. `I just want the piece of paper at the end, but do not foresee learning a lot that will be of value’, said Bell.

It takes two years to convert to an HND, then one year for an Honours degree and two years for a Masters degree – a total of five years.

There is a growing number of university places that are available today. Jonathan Love, from Sheffield University says: `My gut feeling is that there should be two trained and experienced HNC/D technicians for every graduate, but that now the ratio is reversed’.

So what can be done to bridge these gaps and provide industry with the balance of skill levels needed to handle all aspects of control systems? We need to cover from conceptual process design, through specification of systems and instrumentation, to installation, operation and maintenance, using basic and advanced microprocessor technology.

For people employed in specific sectors, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) response for one year full time MSc has failed. The alternative is the Integrated Graduate Development Scheme (IGDS) at the MSc level.

The shift in training is away from funding full-time theoretical training to striking a sensible balance with practice applied in industry.

IGDS programmes that have been developed jointly with universities and industry. And, over 40 programmes are now operating throughout the UK.

Courses include: advanced microelectronics for industrialists (Bolton Institute); electronic product engineering (Glamorgan University); safety critical systems engineering (York University); environmental engineering (Portsmouth University); and Engineering business management (York/Hull Universities).

More details are available from the EPSRC in Swindon on 01793 444038.

The University of Sheffield is typical of many universities that are trying to bridge the gap between an all round education and specialist training needed for industry.

Typically, 16 modules are available from which nine need to be selected. Each module is supported by a mixed group – such as the batch control module, which is supported by Eurotherm and ICI-Eutech, along with two academics and one consultant. Each module involves one week full time study and eight weeks part time work away from University. At the end of this there is an assignment to be completed followed by an exam.

Open University courses for control systems have recently closed, reportedly due to too high a failure rate in advanced mathematics. However, there is a course handled by the OU on manufacturing: management and technology.

Similarly, Continual Professional Development has been likened to a `Green Shield Stamps’ exercise. However, changes are afoot within the professional institutions to tighten both accreditation of courses and the need to attend recognised events to retain Chartered Engineer status. Colin Carter at the InstMC on 0171 387 4949 can provide details.

Universities are increasingly being forced to look for alternative sources to Government for funding, including industry and student loans. So it is unlikely that four year degree course will be promoted in the near future.

However, there are moves within SARTOR (Standards And Routes TO Registration), a sub-committee of the Engineering Council, that now make it necessary to have a Masters degree as a minimum basis for a Chartered Engineer.

Routes for SARTOR accreditation are shown in the diagram on page 53. The Engineering Professors’ Council, headed by Professor Plumb, prefers tougher and simpler accreditation routes.