A Message from Recent Engineering Graduates in the Workplace: Results of a Survey on Technical Communication Skills

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Survey results reveal the impact of engineers' communication skills in adjusting to jobs and achieving career goals. A direct correlation emerges between the amount of technical communication (TC) instruction and career advancement. Former students then spell out recommendations for providing relevant TC instruction within the engineering curriculum.

I. THE CHALLENGE

Results of a May 1999 survey again confirmed the crucial role communication plays in today's engineering workplace.

However, although today's fast-paced, competitive workplace requires engineers to convey technical information quickly to diverse audiences, the overwhelming evidence shows that graduating engineers are inadequately equipped to meet this need. Numerous industry surveys, managers' comments, and academic studies confirm this assessment.1-3 In fact, the Society for Manufacturing Engineers names "lack of communication skills" among the top "competency gaps" in engineers' education.4 Also recognizing this need, ABET now requires engineering programs to demonstrate their students' competency in writing and verbally presenting technical reports.

Engineering professors, too, often complain about students' poor writing and presentation abilities. Even students entering our major courses at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) realize this deficiency.5 Surveys conducted for 22 semesters revealed that, on a scale from 0 to 5, students on average rate their writing abilities at a low 2.7, and their oral presentation skills even lower at 2.4.(6)

Now, results of a May 1999 survey of recent graduates add important new evidence: former UB undergraduate and graduate engineering students, who have been working for three to five years, offer valuable information and insights that engineering educators can integrate into their curricula.

II. BACKGROUND: OUR ANSWER-AND CURRENT STATUS

To address this nationwide education problem at UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in 1987 we initiated a technical communication (TC) program that focuses mainly on juniors and seniors. Our instruction combines several job-related features. It is based on information models, quality-control writing strategies, language guidelines, efficient teaching methods, and constructive feedback procedures-originated and proven in the workplace! Further, all our courses address the main communication problems that engineers, scientists, and students consistently identify in numerous questionnaires and classes. Finally, almost from its inception, the program has benefited from the enthusiastic and dedicated support of an industrial advisory committee whose members also successfully mentor our students one-on-one.8 Today, TC instruction reaches about 65 percent of our upper-level undergraduate students via both "stand-alone" 3-credit technical electives and short modules integrated into design project, internship, laboratory, and other engineering courses. The electives are also available for graduate students. In addition, a 2-credit TC requirement is integrated into a Master of Engineering final project.

However, after 12 years of instruction, our faculty in the recently named Center for Technical Communication (CTC) recognized the need to expand and enhance the program. Our goals were to encompass all students, including freshmen and sophomores, and to offer more opportunities for practicing TC skills.

Before embarking on new steps to expand our program, we needed to obiectively:

* Assess the effectiveness of our current courses

* Identify areas and methods for optimally expanding and improving the TC program.

Because the problem exists nationwide, we believed our conclusions and recommendations would apply to many engineering schools.

To implement this assessment, several discussions with faculty members and our industrial advisory committee helped define the concepts for future program directions. …