Ivory tower or shop floor?

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Garnet Ridgway: There is clearly a place for both formal and on-the-job education and training in the aerospace testing world – but there are some unique advantages to the former.

The first point to note is that in the 21st century, ‘formal’ education in engineering-related subjects is no longer the entirely academic, abstract entity of the preceding centuries. Even the highest of university qualifications will generally contain vocational elements and transferable skills such as project management, problem-based learning and industrial collaboration, thus militating against the traditional disadvantage of such qualifications being considered irrelevant to the ‘real world’.

Recruiting university graduates is vital to maintaining the innovative edge of a testing organization. If every new recruit to the organization were trained entirely in-house, how would new ideas or ways of thinking ever be expected to prosper? While it’s arguably the case that graduates have a higher initial training burden associated with them than those who have moved up from junior positions within the organization, this is far outweighed by the benefits of fresh thinking. Rather than simply working through an assigned task, a graduate is more likely to wonder: “Is this really the best way to do this?” Such an approach is critical to sustaining the long-term health of a testing organization in a competitive market.

An increasingly common feature of modern aerospace testing programs is that they are collaborative, spanning a number of organizations with various responsibilities. For this reason, the concept of SQEP (suitably qualified and experienced personnel) is something that must be universal among the stakeholders; the SQEP criteria of each organization may not be recognized by the others. Formal qualifications, such as university degrees, provide just such an independent SQEP criterion.

Formal higher education has received some criticism in the past for being irrelevant to real-world applications. However, a combination of relatively recent changes to typical course content and the advantages that can only be gained from employing graduates means that there is certainly still a place for formal education in the aerospace testing community. Most crucially, the transferable, problem-based skills that graduates bring are vital to equipping organizations to survive and thrive in a changing market.  

Garnet Ridgway has a PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has designed cockpit instruments for Airbus and currently works

for a leading UK-based aircraft test and evaluation organization. 

Sophie Robinson: While academic qualifications bring prestige and a string of letters after your name, the average new English university graduate can now also expect to have more than £30,000 (US$48,000) of debt. For many this is too large a disincentive, and as a consequence the engineering industry loses a large portion of the available talent to more traditional vocational careers. This is an untenable position – but our industry seems to be realizing this, and focusing increasingly on offering more on-the-job training to attract the best and the brightest young engineers.

For once I agree with my sparring partner to the left – formal higher education has received criticism for being irrelevant to real-world applications – and rightly so. Rote learning and a focus on grades and classifications can stifle the spirit of innovation and creativity so sorely needed within the engineering community.

It also takes more than just a university degree to qualify as SQEP in today’s test and evaluation environment. Companies offering on-the-job training can tailor their training programs to accelerate their trainees and give them the required skills to become SQEP in their roles much faster than the more generalist approach taken in a typical degree course. This is also by far the most efficient and effective way to spend a training budget – start with employees with evident potential, develop them, and your business will gain employees with the required skills to excel in their roles. This is doubly beneficial in test and evaluation, where the required skills are difficult to teach in an academic environment and there are few opportunities to gain practical experience.

Businesses can also use on-the-job training to ensure that skills crucial to their company aren’t lost if a specific member of the team leaves or retires – something of paramount importance in test and evaluation, which can be a very niche field.

On-the-job training and academic qualifications aren’t mutually exclusive either; the modern apprentice often has both. As the value of vocational training is becoming more widely recognized and the training itself is becoming more formalized, many apprentices and trainees go on to convert their experience into higher qualifications and degrees. Now if only I could recycle the bit of my brain that can still remember how to derive the Maxwell-Faraday equation from first principles and use it for something of more practical benefit… 

Sophie Robinson is currently finishing her PhD as part of the Flight Science and Technology Research Group within the Centre for Engineering Dynamics at the University of Liverpool. In the course of her research, Sophie regularly works with test pilots.

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