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Being an engineer is not all taught, some things need to be learnt

Posted By Dr Martin Venter, Thursday, 18 April 2019

As South African engineers we are proud of our community, we have a reputation for hard work and innovation in many parts of the world, but we seem to be forgetting that our reputation is not based on what we were taught in the classroom, rather what we learnt from our betters once we leave.

In recent years there has been a strong focus on increasing the number of graduates coming out of tertiary education (at my institution there has been a 5-fold increase in output in a decade). Most of us are aware that to meet this demand academia has wrestled with many challenges resulting in updated curricula. Assessments have been streamlined and the digital era has been embraced. Contemporary graduates have a range of classical skills that will be familiar to the old guard but have also accrued a range of new skills. Some institutions have even begun emphasizing the ever illusive 'soft skills'; that the public at large wants us to have. The question here is; now what?

However good your formal education is, it is incomplete. Young engineers move out of the classroom and join other practicing engineers. Only here do they learn the values of our industry: honesty, integrity, responsibility, inclusivity, continuous development and professionalism. These attributes are passed down from generation to generation. The older generation either mentored the new graduates directly through EIT programs or indirectly through their interaction with new graduates. In this way we have built a culture of engineering.

In a recent news article Consulting Engineers South Africa laments the immigration of senior engineers in the age bracket 35 to 55 and notes the ‘huge number’ of new graduates. As a community we are fast becoming bottom heavy and will reach the point where there are simply too few senior engineers to provide adequate mentorship, and our values may no longer be imparted on the younger segment of our community. With their sheer number, the newly graduated engineers will dominate how South African engineers are seen globally and their behaviour will reflect all our values.

We can no longer rely on the passive interactions of the past (or our absentee regulator) to instil the culture of South African engineering on the new generation. If we want to maintain our standards of practice and reputation, we now need to plan how new additions to our community are socialized. 

Steps in this direction have been made in other communities. In Canada for instance many new graduates choose to participate in the ‘Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer’, which in the words of Rudyard Kipling; ‘...has been instituted with the simple end of directing the young engineer towards a consciousness of his profession and its significance, and indicating to the older engineer his responsibilities in receiving, welcoming and supporting the young engineers in their beginnings.’

Members of the voluntary associations are in the best position to engage with the youth to ensure that they gain the attributes that will keep our community strong. All it takes is a little time.

Dr Martin Venter
MSAIMechE

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Michael Rossouw says...
Posted Thursday, 18 April 2019
One of the cballenges of mentoring is the fact that it has become a high risk to one's career. I have learnt more from my seniors allowing me to try and then pointing out my errors than those pointing the way and giving the roadmap. This because it forced me to think and anticipate. However I find myself in an environment where pointing out deficiencies are easily dismissed as rasist or sexist and your attempts to help becomes your character flaw. Our young people considers mentoring as my obligation, not their privilege. Am I just a grumpy old engineer? :-)
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