Does the classroom truly prepare you for the field?

Article Source: IMechE

...there is no ‘one size fits all’ profile when it comes to engineering
…there is no ‘one size fits all’ profile when it comes to engineering

IMechE’s new Engineering Policy Officer, Carly Nettleford, has broad experience in technical education and of working in different engineering sectors. In this blog she explores the value of educational qualifications versus practical experience.

Working as an engineer, I often hear conflicting views regarding the importance of your qualifications in relation to your role in the field. I have worked in three very different engineering sectors with people from many different educational backgrounds. In each of these roles there has been the regular debate about qualifications or experience, and which is deemed more important?

Engineering has a large impact on our everyday lives. From constructing our roads and maintaining our hospitals to agricultural engineers using technology to farm our food. In all these sectors, safety is pivotal and often considered the number one priority for engineers. In order to ensure safety, engineers must be deemed competent. But how is this measured?

Historically, engineering jobs required predominantly manual skills. In more recent years we have seen technology evolve and have a big impact on how and where those engineering skills are used. Today, there is now a higher demand for jobs that require a technical ability, for example coding, software development and digital design than perhaps for maintenance or building roles. However, new engineering projects will struggle to get off the ground without both these skill sets.

As a result, many advertised jobs in engineering will state that a relevant degree is required. Some see the main purpose of university being to gain a degree, but there are many other valuable benefits that can be taken from the experience of university. For example, the social element gives you the opportunity to build rapport with your peers and helps to grasp the importance of having the ability to work together, teamwork is crucial within the engineering industry.  Practical work allows you to see how projects or technologies could work by application, whereas theory may give you a better understanding of ‘why’, potentially in a shorter space of time.

Students may decide to choose the less conventional route of attending university and going into industry straight from school, gaining hands on experience and relevant industry qualifications. This route is attractive as it provides you with the chance to ‘earn while you learn’ and avoid university debts. Completing an apprenticeship and work-based learning gives you both theoretical and practical experience with the option to gain high level qualifications. All level NVQs, HNC/HNDs are all accessible during apprenticeships and soon we may see degrees too. These qualifications are all recognised by employers.

When it comes to gaining employment there have been many arguments as to what matters the most. Will that degree help you to claim your dream job or will the years of experience enhance your application? Which of the two aspects will be more beneficial when growing your career and obtaining a higher salary? Some employers who value experience over education argue that higher education proves that you can succeed in academia but not necessarily in the field and that success in work is valued more in life than education. While employers with the preference to hire individuals with a degree argue that having hands on experience in a specific job may limit your future job opportunities, stating that you may gain more transferable skills while obtaining a degree.

My own experience of coming through the apprenticeship route, has given me many opportunities. I obtained two NVQs, a BTEC level 3 qualification and an HNC. I gained these engineering qualifications through workplace learning and was able to use my personal experiences working in the field to gain a greater understanding of my studies. I have qualifications in both mechanical and electrical-electronic engineering and I have been able to apply across the different sectors I have worked in. Throughout my career I have had many managers with differing educational backgrounds. I worked for a company where the CEO began as an apprentice, I have also had managers with PhDs, who are now Chief Engineers. I have worked with managers who have degrees that are in non-engineering subject and I have been a supervisor to engineers with higher qualifications than me.

The reality of the debate is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ profile when it comes to engineering. The preference would be based on the employers needs for the job role you are applying for. The positive thing about this is there is space for everyone in engineering, whatever your background. I have never felt restricted within or by my sector. I have gained transferable skills through work-based learning and obtained knowledge and understanding of engineering in all areas of work. The apprenticeship route worked well for me, but you may prefer to go to university and study at a higher level. It is important to find the best route for you!


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