Nigel Fine of the Institution of Engineering and Technology holds forth on various issues
Over the past few years, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), a professional and international body for engineers, has expanded its presence in India. Though the numbers of professional registrations still stands at around 250, its activities among academics and professionals have focussed on addressing challenges in the engineering sector, says Nigel Fine, Chief Executive and secretary of the IET.
In a freewheeling chat with The Hindu, he discusses the IET’s new experiments with an open access journal, the shortage of skilled engineers in non-IT sectors and why Indian professionals and the engineering industry must wake up to the value of professional registrations.
Q. There are several professional bodies for engineers in India. What does an international body such as the IET offer to engineers that others don’t?
A. The IET is a long-established professional society with 1,50,000 members across 127 countries. Our focus is on the concept of a ‘professional home for life’, wherein we want to make sure that each section of an engineer’s life — through the journey of a student, young professional, mid-career and senior professional — we are able to offer something of value, relevance and importance to them.
The second part of what we do is about what we call Essential Engineering Intelligence. That’s about taking knowledge — our big 100-year-old databases — and make it available through books, magazines, journals and databases with engineers around the world.
The link between the two is the constant need to develop engineers; that is continuous engineering education for professionals.
But, how do you get to truly share this knowledge, given a lot of it is behind closed doors...
Today, most journals are subscription based. We have just announced that we will be the very first engineering society to have an open access journal. It is called the Journal of Engineering. We are calling for papers now. They will be peer reviewed and it will be out and freely accessible in a few months.
Globally, after Aaron Swartz’s suicide, there’s been a movement or at least a renewed debate on open access. Is the IET’s new initiative a response to this?
I think it is responding to a demand, really. Increasingly, we see governments who say that if they are providing funding for research, particularly in Western Europe and the Americas, they want to make sure the research is available to everyone. So, there is a part of funding for publishing, and as you know in open access journals you pay for your own publications. This is an increasing trend we are seeing. Also, we feel it is important to offer a combination of access to knowledge.
A professional body as old as the IET will have large databases and archives. Are these accessible too?
One of our global products in InSPEC, which is a bibliography of everything to do with physics and engineering sciences. This includes 13 million entries in this database (from 1984, and the archives go back to the 1870s). Today, we find that some of this knowledge that we see as old is becoming relevant. For instance, as we look at renewable energy there is more focus today on DC energy circuits rather than AC. So we have to go back to apply these, look back and make use of the knowledge that is available on the IET databases. This kind of knowledge is important and very much at the core of what we want to do at the IET.
Knowledge is behind all we do. The IET has invested hugely in building digital capabilities so now all our works, journals and data, are available online across the world. We have also launched a product called My Communities, a social and professional online networking tool, that shares similar capabilities as Facebook or LinkedIn but is specifically designed to allow people to work and share knowledge, or even work on projects together.
What are IET’s plans in India?
We see it as a huge opportunity for the IET. This is a large country with thousands of engineers being trained in the university to do a variety of jobs. We see an opportunity to help India access the international stage.
Professional registrations are a big part of this.
Why does a country such as India, its engineers or industry need to focus on getting professional registrations?
India, in the long term, is looking at being a more innovative or entrepreneurial country. It wants to move up from the low-level call centre support for the Western world and work on more complex innovative solutions that will bring more value and revenue to India. But it needs a method of demonstrating those capabilities to the world.
The Western world suffers from a skills shortage. So, this also works for those who wish to go abroad and take up high-tech jobs outside the country.
The focus over the past decade in India has been on Information Technology. What are the broader trends you see here in engineering?
We are seeing trends where young people are moving in from the IT sector to the core engineering sectors. There is also a major demand for engineers in these sectors.
As the IT sector is beginning to mature, and perhaps slow down a bit, we’re seeing the focus return to other core sectors. And these core sectors are important because they're the ones who make sure that things in the physical world are working. So our focus is not just on IT and software, which is an exciting subject, but on the very important disciplines.
Are you saying that this IT focus has been at the cost of the core disciplines?
The demand by the IT companies for engineers drew many away from the more traditional engineering fields. This has resulted in skills shortage.
One major concern is that there is a shortage of power engineers. So what the IET has done is launch the Power Panel, a forum of experts in the power industry who are working with us to help attract engineers into the power industry. Whilst we are seeing students go into IT, the IET has been doing a lot over the years to move engineers into the more traditional engineering fields.
Plus, research here has shown that of all the thousands of engineers, sadly, a very small number of graduates are employable. They are not being given the requisite skills in their academic lives that are needed when they go into their professional lives.
What do you mean when you mention employability? Often, the definition of the term as it is used by the industry tends to be limited to communication or what is termed as soft skills.
So, the feedback we get is that the engineers are textbook savvy but they lack the ‘touch and feel’ of technology or its knowledge is missing. A power industry leader told us that the students that are employed, after four years of their course, have to be shown what a basic transformer looks like.
It takes industry about two years to bring them up to speed, and this is a lot of extra investment.
The IET’s intervention in this field is our programme to help accredit universities here. So we send experts to go work with the faculty and assess their programmes. This is also part of what we want to do here, and have already set the ball rolling on this.