Engineering education in Australia continues to change (Ferguson, 2006b). Course structures, the breadth of curricula, teaching methods and learning environments are evolving. The University of Melbourne has, and the University of Western Australia (UWA) soon will, replace four-year bachelor of engineering courses with three-year bachelor courses followed by two-year masters in engineering. Project- and problem-based learning, teamwork and peer assessment are becoming increasingly popular. As required for program accreditation, non-technical components, including ethics, lifelong learning, teamwork and communication skills, are now part of engineering curricula. This study is motivated by the view that engineers' perceptions of deficiencies of past and recent graduates should be considered when engineering education is changed. The study asks: "Are current changes to engineering education consistent with competency deficiencies in engineering graduates perceived by engineers?"
This study is part of a larger one on generic competencies required by engineers graduating in Australia. This study uses qualitative questions from a survey from which quantitative sections are reported elsewhere (Male et al, 2009b).
International studies have identified competency deficiencies in engineering graduates as perceived by various stakeholders. Competency deficiencies in graduates have also been referred to as "skills gaps", referring to the difference between the level of competence required for employment or alternatively the importance of competencies for employment and the level of competence of graduates. Large-sample surveys have measured competency deficiencies in engineering graduates based on perceptions of engineers or employers.
In a European and US survey, 1372 engineers with bachelor, master or diploma degrees rated engineering competencies and general professional competencies on importance and graduate performance (Bodmer et al, 2002). The largest indicated gaps were in communication, leadership and social skills.
In a UK survey, 256 employers of engineering graduates rated their satisfaction with skills that had been identified as important in an earlier phase of the study (Spinks et al, 2006). There was small, yet statistically significant, dissatisfaction with practical application and business skills, and to a lesser extent, technical breadth. Interviews supported the concern about practical application.
In an international survey of chemical engineers from 63 countries, during their first five years of employment, participants ranked skills and abilities with respect to the quality of their education, and also the relevance to their work (WCEC, 2004). If the average rank for work was lower than that for education, the skill or ability was identified as being in deficit. On average across all 1091 engineers with bachelor degrees, the skill or ability rated as having the highest identified deficit was business approach. Ratings for quality management methods, project management methods, management skills, effective communication and leadership also indicated relatively high deficits.
As demonstrated by the variation across countries that can arise in survey results (for example, WCEC, 2004), rather than making the assumption that findings from overseas generalise to Australia, it is prudent to also obtain Australian data.
Communication is the competency that features most frequently as a deficiency in Australian surveys. In a survey by Bons & McLay (2003), among 98 participants, 45 RMIT engineering graduates from 1989 to 1997 with at least five years of experience ranked 27 graduate attributes on importance and also preparation. The graduates' responses indicated the largest gaps for accountability, teamwork, communication, interpersonal skills, and skills to advocate and influence. In a survey by Ashman et al (2008), among other participants, 40 fourth-year undergraduate chemical engineering students and six managers rated graduate attributes on importance and competence. …