Nigel Fine, the CEO of Institution for Engineering and Technology, on how IET can help universities look ahead of time
EDU: Tell us about the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET). How has it evolved over the years?
Nigel Fine: The Institution The Institution was set up in 1871, at a time when professional institutions were being set up and society really valued knowledge and shared it for the larger good. We are a not-for-profit organization and our mission is to make sure we disseminate knowledge about engineering to enhance the careers of engineers and benefit society.
Technology is really at the heart of everything we do todayfrom the machines used by doctors to save lives, to the air-conditioner that keeps you comfortable and the power that is generated to keep it all running. So, the IET works to enhance awareness and skills of the engineering community. We create synergies between governments, academia and industry to facilitate its growth and development. The IET was set up in the UK; but we are global and very well connected with some of the national heads, as for example, here in India.
Tell us about your presence in India.
In India, we have offices in Bangalore, Delhi, and now Bombay; so we are increasing our footprint in India. Currently we have over 8,000 members. India is incredibly important as a market to the IET. It is probably one of our oldest overseas activities. We have had members here for many years. But operations began from 2004, when we chose to invest and build a capability to more effectively support the engineering community here.
We are building a series of India focused activities and capabilities. India produces hundreds of thousands of engineers. So, the opportunity to engage is tremendous. The world is also becoming more global everything is digital. Being able to provide international connectivity to Indian engineers is really important.
What are the activities that the institution engages in?
There are two parts to the institution, one is membership and the other is scientific publication.In terms of memberships we have 160,000 members across 120 different countries. We engage with people related to engineering at different stages of the education and employment cycle students who are just about to enter engineering to young professionals, mid-career professionals and those moving on to retirement. This is for engineers as well as technicians vocational engineers who have gone through apprenticeship and on-the-job training rather than academics.
We organise many engagements for our members, many of which take place through our local networks called branches. We have over a 100 around the world; eight here in India, through which our members share, learn and do things to help the community. But also being an international organisation, most of our community heads are now online, joined to what we call Mycommunity, a sort of professional version of Facebook which enables knowledge sharing.
We are also a very large scientific publisher. We publish books, journals, magazines, databases, which are internationally available. Many of our members are engaged in forming communities where they can actually create knowledge. Those knowledge activities then find their way into our scientific publishing. And the scientific publishing converts that knowledge into formats which reach a much bigger audience. So the number of people we touch is many times the number of our members. It is for this reason that we run over a thousand events every year.
Why are professional registrations important?
Professional registration of members is a key activity as they are an indicator of an engineering professionals skills at different stages of his/her career. Lets take the example of software, which is clearly big in India. This is where the importance of registrations comes in: theres a whole range from high-skilled to not so skilled professionals, but they all classify themselves as IT.
Just this month, we launched the Chartered IT Professional aimed at the very top levels of innovation in software and IT. So, if someone is a CITP, you know exactly what that person is capable of; otherwise you dont really know what you are getting.
Why this is especially important in India is that while there are hundreds of thousands of engineers coming out each year, they are not of the same quality. India needs to move up the value chain because, if theres a skills shortage globally, then Europe and America will look to India to supply engineers. But they need to demonstrate that they can work at the standards practised there.
Is membership open to universities and governments?
While we have only individual memberships, we do work with institutions to facilitate registration of students if there are a large number of applicants from the same institution. We have 13 academic affiliates at this point, all across India, and by the end of the year, we hope we will have about 25.
You said that you work to create synergies between governments, academia and industry to facilitate the growth of engineering. How does that work?
We primarily work to address the skill gaps. One of the things that we do is that we accredit the university programs. We visit universities with our trained assessors, who are either academicians from other institutions or from the industry. They assess the content and teaching to see if the learning experience is good enough to meet industry requirements. So, if a university is accredited by the IET, employers will have greater faith in its students.
Another aspect about skill gap is that students lack experience of the real world, which can be had through internships and work experience. These help students understand how they can apply their academic knowledge to real life; this is particularly important in India. The third thing is for academicians and industrialists to come together on a neutral platform and discuss the issue of supply and demand. The fourth thing we do is launch job fairs. We have launched one here in India. The standards of applying are quite high; the students go through a series of technical assessments to make sure they match the requirements of potential employers. It is only then that they are presented to the employer. Usually, students register for it, rather than universities.
We have launched a scholarships and awards programme here in India to help young people to get to university. This targets the very best students, both at a general level, and more specifically, female engineers. We are very conscious about ensuring there are more women in engineering directly and indirectly, This is very much at the heart of our philosophy. There is also a skill shortage in certain areas, for example, say in power engineering because everyone wants to join IT. So, we have set up a Power Panel that brings together universities and industries. Potential students can apply for scholarships through the panel since they are linked to industry sponsors. Sponsors provide a grant to support their academic studies and also, work experience. When they graduate, it is likely that they will join the sponsoring organisation.
When it comes to skills of engineers what are some of the skills engineers in India need to develop? Are soft skills as important as they are made out to be? Should institutions focus on interdisciplinary courses?
Absolutely, there must be a focus on both written and verbal communication interpersonal skills and team building skills. Universities need to work actively to develop these. IET runs a Present around the world programme designed by its young engineers to improve communication skills. This happens first at a local level. The topic is related to engineering but the main assessment is of communications. Through stages, it moves to the global finalwhere we have 5 global finalists from five regions with one winner. There is also a definite need for engineers to develop an understanding of how other business divisions like accounting, marketing etc. work; because, often, engineers move into these divisions.
Engineers here often go to business schools before joining the industry. Do you think that is necessary to be job-ready and have a good career path?
Now, I have an issue with that. I think students should get exposed to business and industry before formally studying business. Unless youve spent some time in a work environment, you dont understand the issues or engage with multi-disciplinary teams. In business school, when you work on case studies and with teams, you can contribute more if you have work experience.
Where do you think engineering is headed? What are the future trends, what courses should universities think of introducing? What should be the focus areas for the head of an institution?
Well, they need to think internationally; and about the quality of their research. If an institution has a high ranking for its academic content, it attracts more funding for research from the industry, and better students. It can possibly even attract international students. To get there, you have to aim to be premier. Indian institutions have to make a conscious shift from focusing on placements to focusing on research.
What are some emerging fields in engineering we should watch out for?
Bio-medical engineering and bio-science engineering, essentially fields related to health care and wellbeing. Environmental engineering too since there is clearly an increased emphasis on sustainability and clean technology