Monday, 29 April 2013

Engineering fast losing glitter as premier course

Posted  Monday, April 29  2013 at  01:00 

We see it every year; enthusiastic bright students who have just received their excellent Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination results and their proud parents beside them. Asked what they want to study, engineering is a common choice.
For these students, getting into university engineering programmes, which have high cut-off points of straight As, is no easy feat.
The high entry marks ensures a steady stream of the country’s best and brightest students into university engineering degree programmes.
After a gruelling five-year study, during which one has to overcome many hurdles, the engineering student finally completes his/her studies and joins the country’s stream of fresh engineers.
They will have endured the pain of inadequate infrastructure and basic necessities like chairs, desks, computers, and accommodation that plague many public universities.
The laboratories are not adequately equipped and whatever equipment that exists is likely to be out-dated. The course content is old and many of the topics are irrelevant to today’s industry.
Innovation and intellectual property training is not adequately covered. Getting placements or internships is a nightmare and career/entrepreneurship training or support is non-existent.
Research in this field is hard to come by and often not in tune with the country’s industry needs. Generally, lecturers have failed to keep pace with research and industry and, therefore, cannot transfer prevalent knowledge to the students. In any case, there is a significant shortage of qualified lecturers in this field.
This erodes the quality of teaching. Students are at the mercy of unqualified tutors.
After enduring all these, employment quickly becomes a pipe dream for many fresh engineers. It is not surprising that bewilderment and frustration set in after these students are done with studies.
Engineering graduates are told they do not have the relevant skills for the market, and are, thus, unemployable. This is echoed by both local and international companies, some of which have gone ahead to recruit non-Kenyan graduates from foreign universities.
Other employers would rather hire non-degree holders, whom they find to be more hands-on and accept lower pay.
Many of the jobs that were traditionally done by engineers have now been diluted and taken over by graduates of computer science and IT.
Examples of jobs done by both engineering and computer science graduates are in the IT and telecoms industry in roles such as Internet development, mobile and wireless applications, networking and core switch engineering
The engineering professional bodies then come into play, dismissing some of the engineering degree programmes taught at some universities.
The Kenya Engineers Registration Board is on record for having rejected a number of engineering degrees offered at Egerton, Moi, and Masinde Muliro Universities before being overruled by the court on October 15, 2012.
To cap it all, one can only be allowed to practise as an engineer or lecturer once they have relevant experience approved by the engineers registration board.
Given the learning challenges at the universities, work experience becomes difficult to come by for the young engineers. The entrepreneurial spirit in these engineering graduates, if any, is crushed.
This further compounds the problem of lecturer shortage, as otherwise eligible candidates are not certified and cannot, therefore, practise.
Many of the frustrated graduates end up in non-engineering business activities or other professions such as finance or accounting. The irony is that those who do so sometimes end up faring much better than their colleagues who were lucky to get an “engineering” job.
This is because the latter group may do a job that, even though technical, may not qualify as a job fit for an engineering graduate. The result is the underutilisation of their skills and poor pay.
It is true that compared to the beginning of the past decade, industry players have taken great strides to devise training programmes. In this category is Safaricom, which has established the Safaricom Academy.
A few universities have had their engineering course content revised or updated and now also offer professional certification courses.
Some leading universities are getting more involved in industry. The diversity of specialisation and degree studies in this field has also improved. Still, more needs to be done to salvage the situation in the spirit of Vision 2030.

The writer is a university lecture

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