Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Valuable skills learned from "basket-weaving"', Engineers Australia, March 2000, p. 46.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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Its official: graduates are leaving universities without essential skills that are not only demanded by employers but also crucial for good citizenship and social responsibility. The problem is particularly acute for engineering graduates.

A recent report by AC Nielsen Research Services for the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) on "Employer Satisfaction with Graduate Skills" has found that new university graduates lack creativity and flair, oral communication skills and problem solving ability--qualities which employers say are important.

Of even more interest was the finding that whilst even graduates who were successful at getting jobs lack these skills, "the skill that most sets apart successful from unsuccessful applicants" is "capacity for independent and critical thinking". This is one of the most important skills according to the employers interviewed, ahead of logical and orderly thinking, academic learning, initiative and motivation. However it is quite rare in graduates.

Employers found that engineering graduates in particular were "poor in many skills, particularly at problem solving and oral business communications which employers consider important but also in interpersonal skills" and also "particularly poor at critical and independent thinking".

These results complement an earlier 1993 IEAust survey of Australia's major engineering employers in which "more than 97 per cent of respondents concluded that their current engineers did not have the necessary skills or experience to carry out their duties to 'an acceptable level of competence'." Lacking were the social understanding, human interaction and written communications skills, not traditionally part of an engineering degree.

The AC Nielsen report has clear implications for engineering education. Implications that were addressed to a some extent by the 1996 review of engineering education Changing the Culture, which recognised the need to broaden the engineering degree.

Skills such as problem solving, communications, interpersonal skills and critical and independent thinking should be fostered in engineering education, not just because they are qualities that employers look for but because they should be part of any tertiary education.

A major difference between training and education is that training is aimed at fitting a person towards a specific end, whereas education is aimed at giving people choices in life. Training is about giving a person the skills and knowledge to carry out a particular occupation or type of occupation; education is more about helping people to attain an understanding of the world they live in and their relationship with it.

Education seeks to provide a breadth and depth of understanding as compared to the knowledge required for training which is limited to what enables a person to competently fulfil a function. Ideally education equips people to make their own decisions and to be critical thinkers.

In the past engineering education has been narrowly focussed on providing graduates with the technical knowledge to fulfil an engineering job competently. Because of this it has tended more towards training than education.

It is no longer sufficient, nor even practical, to attempt to cram students full of technical knowledge in the hope that it will enable them to do whatever engineering task is required of them throughout their careers. A new educational approach is now emerging but it clearly has a way to go judging by the results of this latest survey.

A broader more general approach is required that not only helps students to understand basic engineering principles but also equips them with generic skills. And beyond this there is also a need to provide young engineers with an understanding of the social context within which they will work, together with skills in critical analysis.

One way to foster thinking skills is to get engineering students to do a few social science subjects. Often engineering subjects give the impression that there is always a right answer and that the 'facts' will resolve disputes. They concentrate on mathematical analysis rather than critical analysis. The value of social science subjects is that the student is generally encouraged to practice and demonstrate critical analysis as well as communication skills in essay writing and seminar presentations.

Whilst such subjects have sometimes been dismissed by traditionalists in engineering faculties as basket-weaving, it is now clear that the skills fostered by such subjects are valuable, not only in life, but in the workplace.