Why graduates have poor business skills – part 2

On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and elsewhere report business leaders complaining about graduates without appropriate skills.

Recently I wrote about one factor that could explain this: the implicit privileging of writing about all other forms of communication throughout our education system. Graduates, therefore, tend to have weak skills in listening, seeing and reading, even drawing and visual communication, all of which are critical for engineering and most other professions.

This helps to explain why the reputation of graduates is so low, particularly in the minds of business employers. And it is not just engineers, apparently, that are said to have terrible communication skills.

My research on engineers provides some novel answers that lie deep within the structure of our education systems. There are some other factors that have emerged from this research affecting not just engineers, but all graduates.

In this post I will describe the second of these factors: the implicit relegation of collaboration. Continue reading

Pakistan Launch: Islamabad

“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was officially launched in Islamabad at the Serena Hotel on January 7th before a gathering of 120 engineers, engineering faculty, aspiring engineers, and friends.  The Hon. Ms. Marvi Memon, Minister Chair of Benezir Bhutto Income Support Fund spoke about the potential impact of the research on the poorest 5.8 million people in Pakistan served by the fund. Lieutenant General (R) Syed Shujaat Hussein, former rector of National University of Science and Technology presided at the launch.Close-Comfort-FB-Logo-151207

The event was sponsored by Close Comfort Air Conditioning


James Trevelyan speaking about the book – transcript of speech appears below.

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What does the Paris Climate Change Treaty mean for engineers?

The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations.  Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections.  The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.

Galleries-Lafayette-Window 151212

Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.

I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century.  It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.

This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting. Continue reading

Opportunities for Pakistan Engineers

In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan.  Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them.  Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives.  Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.

Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.

Take a look at www.closecomfort.com.

This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.

Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers.  Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.

Continue reading

Why graduates have poor business skills – part 1

On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and other countries report that business leaders complain about graduates without appropriate skills. It is not just surveys that tell this story.

Not so long ago, a well-known Australian university decided to promote itself by seeking local business leaders to extol the benefits of their experiences at the university. Well, it turned out that most had actually dropped out of their courses and never finished their degrees! So the campaign was quietly abandoned.

Why is the reputation of graduates so low in business circles, particularly in the minds of business employers? It is not just engineers, apparently, that have terrible communication skills.

Continue reading

A moratorium on new coal mines: a hypocritical Australian gesture

Recently there has been an Australian move to propose a moratorium on new coal mines.

For several years I have researched energy supplies on the ground in India and Pakistan.  I have also researched how engineers respond to the challenges of energy and water supplies there, and also in Australia.

I strongly disagree with this moratorium proposal.


First, it will be seen as hypocritical and selfish in countries like India and Pakistan because we Australians, more than many countries, have grown rich and prosperous by burning vast quantities of coal in the past and continue to do so today.

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Volkswagen: The Challenger moment for mechatronics

I am old enough to have practised mechatronics long before the term was invented around 1990. I learned much in the context of 1970s military aerospace, and applied those lessons in developing sheep shearing robots in the 70s, 80s and 90s. (Youtube video)

When I heard about the Volkswagen scandal I personally felt let down and depressed. I was shocked. Not just because it occurred in a German company with an impeccable reputation. It was because engineers in a discipline that I helped nurture and develop through my career have let the rest of us down, displaying a dark side of their humanity.

I immediately thought about the implications for our mechatronics discipline. Here is our “Challenger” moment. The Challenger space shuttle disaster has been the pre-eminent ethics case study used in the engineering community for several decades. From now on, Volkswagen will take its place, at least for mechatronic engineers.

Continue reading

Time management for engineers

One of the factors most influential in your personal success will you be your time management ability. As an engineer you will have many competing demands on your time. Like many engineers you may feel that most of these are “interruptions” or other demands that impede your “real engineering” work. These notes can help you manage your time better if you feel the need.

Evaluate your own time management. Try this questionnaire first. Next, evaluate your time management practices with this second questionnaire:

time management practices (only for students),

time management practices (if you are no longer a student).

If you scored 40 or more on each questionnaire, your’re doing OK, and will find the rest of this post provides some useful hints. A score of 50 or more on each questionnaire indicates you’re doing fairly well already.  The average combined score for students (so far) is about 85 and for practising engineers, it’s about 90-95.

Here’s how Leslie Perlow, author of the book “Time Famine” described this.

I found that engineers distinguish between “real engineering” and “everything else” that they did. They defined real engineering as analytical thinking, mathematical modelling, and conceptualising solutions. Real engineering was work that required using scientific principles and independent creativity. It was the technical component of engineers’ deliverables that utilise the skills the engineers acquired in school. As one engineer summed it up, “real engineering is what I thought I was hired to do.” In contrast, “everything else” translated mostly into interactive activities.

Engineers describe these interactive activities as disruptions to their real engineering, although research reveals that interactive activities are critical for the completion of an engineer’s tasks. 95% of the time, these social interactions are unplanned, spontaneous so they can seem like interruptions.

This can lead engineers into a vicious work-time cycle. In this cycle, time pressure (to get a product to market/getting the project completed) leads to a crisis mentality which results in individual heroic behaviour causing constant interruptions to others adding to the time pressure and crisis mentality. “Fire Fighting” is the term used by many engineers to describe this, and it’s ever-present for many if not most engineers.

You can learn to break out of this vicious cycle.

Continue reading

How can engineers help eliminate poverty?

Nobel prizewinning economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty” how extreme poverty can be eliminated by implementing six priority actions (Ch12, p234-5):

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

Although Sachs did not allude to this, we can see that all require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly by providing productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity to be available for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

If you look at Pakistan, a middle of the road low income country, around half the workforce is needed just to supply enough food and water for everyone. In Australia, less than 2% of the workforce is needed, and they produce a substantial surplus for food exports. It’s engineering, successful engineering, that makes the difference. That of course relies on lots of other things as well – education, effective means to enforce contracts – law and government regulation, health care and so many others. Once engineers have lifted human productivity, there are people available to provide these other support services. That’s what’s missing in low income countries.

I think there’s no better illustration than the real economic cost of safe drinking water. In Pakistan, the cost (including the indirect cost of unpaid female labour) typically ranges between US$50 and $150 per tonne. In Australia it’s about $2 per tonne. I explain why in my book and my 2012 TED talk. In other words, because we have not enabled engineering to work so well in Pakistan, the poorest people have to pay far more for water ( and all the other essentials for life ) than wealthy Australians.  There are many contributing issues here.

There are wonderful social and commercial opportunities for engineers who set out to fix this and help eliminate poverty. They can start by recognising the economic needs and by devising affordable mass-market solutions. The next step is to provide a credible financial case for investors, along with the reputation for delivering on promises. This last aspect is probably the most difficult: engineers currently have an appalling reputation in both government and commercial investment circles. That’s why it’s best to take small steps, one at a time, and gradually build the reputation needed to achieve results on a grand scale.

In the book I explain some of the insights gained by truly expert engineers. You can learn how they think and how they deliver for their organisations. In doing so, they earn 2 – 5 times as much as other engineers because their organisations recognise the value they contribute.

You can do that too and become a real contributor to the Global Citizen Project. As an engineer, you can do much more than adding to the noise.  I hope you take up this challenge. If you do, please write and tell me about what you have been able to achieve.

Back from Pakistan, UAE, Iran and New Zealand

Some of you may have wondered why there has been a little gap in my blog posts.  I have been pre-occupied with visits to several countries.

My other major project, Close Comfort has developed very quickly with keen anticipation particularly in Pakistan where electricity supplies are subject to frequent interruptions due to load shedding.  Pakistan’s electricity grid is struggling to keep up with demand for air conditioning, and I hope to be able to offer a sustainable solution, as explained in Chapter 13 of the book. Continue reading