Saturday, 19 January 2013

Engineering and Un-employability

I've got a couple of proper engineering enquiries to deal with this weekend, as well as yet more overseas training enquiries.

At the University, I'm putting the finishing touches to a new course in process design for the second years, and I'm now leading the Careers and Industry team. Naturally people are asking me to tell them what industry wants of our graduates, and I ended up having quite a vague conversation with someone about this on Thursday.

I used to think I knew what employability was about - I ran a module intended to enhance employability at Nottingham Trent University, but I wasn't that convinced in the end of the value of attempts to formally teach "soft skills". All of the textbooks were written by people who'd never had a job outside higher education. The research was pretty flaky, and there was an assumption that there was such a thing as generic employability skills, which had substantial crossover with entrepreneurship.

Firstly entrepreneurship - I'm not convinced that you can teach entrepreneurship at all. You can teach skills useful to entrepreneurs, but that's not the thing itself. Then there's the issue of whether entrepreneurs are good employees. I suspect many entrepreneurs are people you wouldn't like working for you, and you wouldn't like to work for. They can employ man-managers if they are successful, but they can be successful if their people-management skills are limited to bullying and manipulation, as long as their business idea is sound. Psychopaths and narcissists are far more likely to be successful entrepreneurs than successful employees.Good employees are generally speaking less self-reliant, less convinced of their own rightness, more compliant, and more empathic than good entrepreneurs. So, I think that teaching entrepreneurship may well run counter to teaching employability, assuming it is possible to teach either.

Then there is employability - Is there a consistent set of skills and attitudes which support employability across all possible jobs and careers? In engineering, people skills are far less important than they are in hairdressing. A compliant and pleasant nature is not always an asset in engineering, though it may well be before one's technical skills are developed. Seeing deadlines as absolute is the norm in a way which would be considered ludicrously inflexible in academia. Clock-watching is considered working to rule in the sort of private sector companies I used to work for, whereas in my experience in the the public sector it is normal to finish a little ahead of time to make sure you are out of the door at the stroke of your finish time.

There are certain traits which make for general unemployability, but these are essentially disabilities. Intelligence lower than a certain threshold will make it very difficult to do useful work. Many mental illnesses, especially personality disorders will tend to be associated with a poor work record. Criminal records tend to hinder employment opportunities. Personality traits less severe than these which are not considered illnesses may cause employability problems too, but these may not be general. A slight lack of empathy may be desirable in a surgeon or a soldier.

What am I looking for when I interview an early career engineer for a job?

Their paper qualifications tell me that they have been assessed in an academic exercise as likely to be intellectually capable of the tasks I am going to ask them to carry out, so that tells me that so far as hard skills are concerned, they are likely to be educable, but the content of academic exercises can be very far removed from the real skills they are intended to teach. Making our academic exercises as realistic as possible, as we are doing at Nottingham can give reassurance in this area. Hard skills may in fact be be easy to enhance.

Soft Skills? I don't want them to be an enormous administrative burden. I want them to turn up on time every day, do as they are asked by superiors, take responsibility for their own actions, understand what I tell them, communicate with other staff clearly, and know what they do not know.

I have taken on some graduates and interns who have fallen down on this last point in the past. Knowing what you do not know is an essential skill at every point in a engineers career.

I have generic skills, such as process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. I am happy to teach these at a general level to all process industries. I also have a higher level of these skills, at which level I am a water and environmental specialist. I do not design bridges, aircraft, or consumer goods. If I need such expertise, I bring in a specialist. I know my limitations.

There have been some very serious industrial accidents in the past caused ultimately by engineers operating outside their area of expertise, or non-engineers operating as engineers. The non-engineers can be forgiven, but part of the skill-set of the professional engineers is a very practical kind of humility. We know that we don't know everything. Some undergrads and new graduates think they do. Not only do they not know, they can't be taught because they think they do. Barring disability, this is a thing which creates unemployability in my book, but that may just be me.

The problem with employability is that the really effective soft skill is being like your interviewers, and/or being liked by them. People employ people whose faces fit, and often simply people who seem like them.

This matters in early- career interviews more than technical skill, or qualifications. Interviewers have been shown for example to prefer employing convicted thieves to fatties. Tall people earn more than shorties. Physically attractive people get more job offers than the aesthetically challenged.

We may prevent people discriminating on grounds of skin colour, sexual orientation, and so on, but we don't stop people discriminating on the grounds of identification, feelings of comfort, and whether they want people who look like the candidate to work with. How are we supposed to teach that?

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