Lifelong learning for engineers - taclking the hurdles

Lynn Van den Broeck
KU Leuven

Walter Daems
University of Antwerp

Eva Kyndt
University of Antwerp

Martin Valcke
University of Ghent

In the increasingly knowledge-based world we live in, lifelong learning (LLL) has become an integral part of professional life. Employees need to continuously update and up-skill their competences in order to keep pace with the changing requirements of the labour market (European Commission 2019, OECD 2019). One of the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations is quality education which, among other things, aims to promote LLL opportunities for all.
Although everybody emphasises the importance of LLL, the participation in LLL is low (OECD 2019). According to data from the Survey of Adult Skills (OECD 2016), only 41% of adults in the surveyed OECD countries participate in job-related training in a given year. The main barrier seems to be ‘shortage of time’ (OECD 2019). Looking more specific at engineers, the half-life of an engineer’s technical knowledge is very limited (2 to 5 years depending on the discipline) (Charette 2013). As a consequence, we will focus on the hurdles of LLL in the field of engineering in Belgium.The universities recognize the importance of LLL and want to provide the individual engineers and companies with tailored learning experiences. However, how should these programmes be organized? In this preliminary research the aim is to make an inventory of the needs of the different stakeholders: HEIs, graduates and their professional organizations, and companies and their industry associations

To make an inventory of the needs of the different stakeholders, three different qualitative methods are used: (1) focus group discussions, (2) interviews, and (3) online surveys. Before starting with the data collection, exploratory discussions were held with HEI’s, professionals, and engineering federations (Ie-net and Agoria)
Focus groups were organised with faculties organizing programmes in Engineering Technology at the Flemish universities. Policy makers and faculty involved in providing LLL for students or professionals participated in the focus groups. The focus groups followed a semi-structured pattern consisting of three parts. First, we focused on which competences are essential for LLL. Secondly, participants shared information about LLL activities they already organize for students, e.g., the corresponding learning environments, the needs they still have, and suggestions to fill in these needs. In the third and last part, the focus was on LLL activities they organize for professionals.
We conducted semi-structured interviews with graduates. Both recent and older graduates of different engineering disciplines were contacted via alumni organisations. A random selection received an invitation via email to participate in an individual interview by phone. Graduates willing to participate replied and included a phone number on which they can be reached. The questions were send to them in advance. The interview focused on their background, their LLL experiences during their career and studies, and their opinion about which competences are essential for LLL.
For the companies an online questionnaire, with open questions only, was used. They were asked to share how LLL is implemented in their company, to make an inventory of their unanswered needs, to give their opinion about the ideal LLL setting for professionals and which competences are essential for LLL.

Data collection is still ongoing, therefore a more detailed description of the results will be included in the full paper. The provisional results are based on the focus group discussions with faculty of HEIs (N=12) and interviews with graduates (N=13). HEI’s faculty agree on the importance of fostering a lifelong learning attitude among engineering students during their study programme. Although this is already included in the programme to some extent, it should be dealt with more explicitly. The following competences are mentioned the most as being essential for LLL: self-reflection, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation, and being eager to learn.
All the results so far show us that the LLL needs are very broad and the organisation conditions are very diverse. The needs include state-of-the-art discipline specific knowledge as well as professional competences. Formal, non-formal, and informal learning are mentioned as possible approaches. Different stakeholders address that a learning environment where students and professionals can meet and become collaborative lifelong learners can be a powerful learning environment.
Another element that stands out is the importance of company size. Large enterprises often have their own education programmes, whereas small and medium enterprises (SME’s) have not. When developing LLL activities this difference has to be taken into account and more attention has to be paid to the SMEs.

As stated by Kamps (2016) lifelong learning is a key aspect for future engineering education. An important element, when fostering students’ LLL attitude, will be to focus on increasing the awareness of the importance of LLL (Martinez-Mediano and Lord 2012).
Besides formal learning, the stakeholders mentioned also non-formal and informal learning as possible learning approaches. This is in line with findings of other studies that state that learning is more than formal learning (Kyndt and Baert 2013, Boeren 2017). Interesting learning set-ups are work-related learning and facilitated work-based learning ((Kyndt and Baert 2013, Norgaard 2019). In general, these set-ups are developed for professionals, however based on our preliminary results, it would be interesting to bring students and professionals together.
To conclude, a complete inventory of the LLL needs of the different stakeholders is a first step towards tackling the hurdles of LLL. When conducting a more elaborate literature review that focuses on good LLL practices, the needs of the stakeholders will be taken into account.