Plug the gaps

A wide variety of short courses can help engineers keep abreast of the latest developments.

As summer gets into its stride, it’s a good time to take stock of your career and think about plugging any personal skills gaps.

Many universities have historically offered short courses for external candidates at this time of year to take advantage of under-used facilities as students head off on vacation.

The professional institutions are increasingly stressing the importance of continuing professional development (CPD). Although it may seem like another burden or distraction in a hectic working life, CPD has potential advantages, such as increasing your employability or chances of promotion. A well-chosen CPD course can be stimulating, as well as providing a new perspective that could help improve your working life as you put new skills into practice.

IMechE head of education Chris Kirby summed it up thus: ’The world moves on and if you don’t move with it you get left behind.’ Businesses change, business models change, markets grow or decline over time. For engineers, technology is changing increasingly rapidly, as is the way it is adapted into new contexts. The legal framework in which businesses operate changes, with new legislation on health and safety or the environment, for example. ’There are strong business reasons for staff being up to date,’ said Kirby. ’It underpins profitability.’

In general, the engineering professions have not taken a prescriptive approach to CPD. So there is no set number of hours or days that an individual must accumulate, or accreditation for courses.

’It’s not about attendance but learning,’ said Kirby. ’Specifying hours or days tends to lead to a tick-box approach. We want to discourage that attitude. CPD should be about reflecting on your abilities, understanding your competences and where you need to develop.’

In addition, the various disciplines of engineering make for a broad church. A huge variation in skill sets makes a prescriptive approach difficult, if not impossible.

So how should you go about structuring your professional development? There are a number of tools to help you.

“CPD should be about reflecting on abilities, understanding your competencies and where to develop”

First, look at any guidelines your employer produces on skills and competences needed for your role or any you aspire to. Look at past appraisals and the action you have taken on points raised. Use your own experience to develop a sense of your competence and what you are good at.

’This was born out of work the Ministry of Defence has done with complex projects and consortia, bringing in rigour and discipline for the first time,’ said Smith.

A suite of courses are aimed at companies working towards accreditation and range from a half-day overview to a threeto four-day course to become a facilitator accredited by the Institute of Leadership and Management. Individuals completing this course successfully would have enough knowledge and expertise to go into an organisation, do an initial ’gap analysis’ to find where the company’s weaknesses lay, and devise a plan to rectify this. Once the plan was implemented the company would be in a position to gain accreditation from BSI.

BSI and Pera are to undertake a roadshow in late summer and early autumn to raise awareness of the standard. ’It’s the first time anybody’s been successful in mapping a set of requirements and nailing them to a management standard you can audit and provide evidence against. It will be a very powerful tool,’ said Smith. Organisations such as Network Rail are already showing interest and considering making it mandatory for its suppliers to be accredited.

Longer-established courses in innovation arose from a similar philosophy. ’There was a lot of work put into trying to move innovation from being a nebulous concept and nail it as a taught discipline,’ added Smith. The innovation process is broken down into stages, and the courses cover the generation and stimulation of ideas, evaluation of ideas, intellectual property rights, and market and business intelligence to discover what is already on the market. Two courses, of five and 10 days, are accredited by the ILM.

Pera runs courses at its Middle Aston Leadership Centre in Oxfordshire, but also frequently at clients’ own sites, if there are more than three or four candidates for the course. With on-site courses Pera engineers will work with the client’s own team to put the new skills and techniques into operation in a controlled situation. But in any case, said Smith, ’one of the really important things is that the training doesn’t stay in the classroom’, and participants will be set a practical ’back at work’ task to put what they have learned into practice.