Preparing engineers for the future by raising awareness of professional roles

Sofie Craps
KU Leuven - Faculty of Engineering Technology

Maarten Pinxten
KU Leuven - Faculty of Engineering Technology

Heidi Knipprath
KU Leuven - Research Institute for Work and Society

Greet Langie
KU Leuven - Faculty of Engineering Technology

Engineering graduates are often unaware of the wide variety of career options when entering the labour market. Research indicates that, even close to graduation, many students remain uncertain about what engineering is and what engineers do (Matusovich et al. 2009). However, a better understanding of one’s professional future and engineering identity has positive consequences for student learning and study choices. (e.g., Meijers, Kuijpers, and Gundy 2013; Bliuc et al. 2011).

To support engineering students in becoming more aware of the different professional roles in the diverse engineering field, Craps et al. (2017, 2018) developed a Professional Roles Model for future engineers. In this dynamic model, three distinct engineering roles are defined, each with a very specific focus: Operational Excellence (focus on process optimization & increasing efficiency); Product Leadership (focus on radical innovation & research and development); Customer Intimacy (focus on tailored solutions for individual clients). The model was validated by industry. In close cooperation with companies from different sizes and from different fields, (non-technical) competency profiles were developed for each role.

In this study, we will examine students’ perceptions of this Professional Roles Model. More specifically, we will investigate (a) to what extent students recognize the model and (b) whether they are able to identify themselves with one or more professional roles. Additionally, we will explore potential applications of the model in the engineering curriculum to increase awareness of the engineering identity.

Focus groups were organised during the first semester of the academic year. Second year bachelor’s (N=32) and master’s students (N=35) in engineering technology (KU Leuven) participated in the focus groups. The bachelor’s students were still in the general engineering programme and were about to choose a major. The master’s students all opted for the major in electromechanical engineering.
The focus group discussions followed a semi-structured pattern consisting of three parts. First, we discussed the perception of the professional future. Can students picture themselves as a future engineer and on what experiences is this picture based?

Secondly, we introduced the Professional Roles Model to the participants. To test whether the students adequately understood the different roles, a competence mapping exercise was performed wherein students could first brainstorm on non-technical competences and then map the competences with each role. Students discussed the model and positioned themselves in one of the roles. This exercise was more extensive for the master’s students to match their role preference with their strengths and weaknesses.

Thirdly, we explored the (possible) need of students to be better prepared for the labour market and how the model could be applied as a potential framework in career guidance.

Overall, students indicate that they experience difficulties in picturing themselves and their future as an engineer. Most bachelor’s students had a vague idea, like “I want to do something in chemical engineering” or “I want to become the manager”. They lack the ability to answer more detailed questions like “How would you manage your people?” or “Become a manager in what area?”. Their ideas are mainly based on the few experiences they had in their education like a company visit, or with relatives like their parents who are engineers.

The master’s students perspectives are somewhat more clearly defined and are mainly based on learning experiences, internships or work experiences. While some students quiet accurately articulate their ambitions, others have only an idea based on exclusion (“I know what I don’t want to do”). The students feel uncertain about how well prepared they are for the labour market. They realise they will need both technical and non-technical competences but are unsure about which competences are most relevant. This uncertainty is reflected in the mismatch of role preference and competency profiles. Almost 32% of the master’s students preferred a role that did not match with their strengths and weaknesses.

Secondly, all students find the model somewhat intuitive. They recognized especially the roles of operational excellence and product leadership from their learning experiences. Interestingly, 34% of the students preferred a role of customer intimacy (single role or combined with a second role), especially female students.

Finally, participating students spontaneously indicated several possibilities to implement the model into the curriculum, for example to approach project work from different roles. They also emphasized that the programme should do more about the awareness of future possibilities. The model could be of great use in doing that.

In sum, these findings confirm that (1) students find it difficult to describe their future as an engineer and indicate that they are uncertain about the expectations of the labour market concerning non-technical competences. In this regard, (2) students understand the Professional Roles Model intuitively and perceive the model as a useful instrument to reflect on their professional future. The need for guidance in this matter is corroborated by the finding that the personal professional preference do not always fit with the students’ strengths.

Differences in perception between second year bachelor’s and master’s students will be explored in greater detail. Results from the industry validation research will be included in the analysis of the master’s students’ role preference. Finally, we will elaborate on the practical implications and on the added value of a commonly accepted framework as a trigger for student reflection.