Talent & Technology: Development of Engineering Competency Models Continues

Courtesy of US Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration.
Engineering competency model.

The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME), of which SPE is a member society, is one of 17 societies that make up the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). AAES, a multidisciplinary organization of engineering societies dedicated to advancing the engineering profession’s impact on the public good, hosts working groups on topics of interest to three or more member societies. AAES formed the Lifelong Learning Working Group (LLWG) in 2013 to “serve as a forum to share best practices and data and to discuss issues and opportunities related to the activities of the member societies to enhance the quality of lifelong learning programs in the United States.” The group identified developing a competency model as a key priority to help many members understand the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the engineering workplace.

SPE has been developing discipline-specific technical competencies for the past several years to assist young professionals, and more recently graduate engineers, in quickly ramping up with necessary skills needed to succeed in today’s competitive environment. SPE believes that accelerating competency is one direct way for industry to deal with “the big crew change” caused by the retirement of a large number of petroleum engineers. In addition to these technical competencies, SPE established a Soft Skills Committee 5 years ago to help oil and gas professionals garner and hone the nontechnical expertise needed to be successful in a global marketplace. SPE’s work is at the leading edge of lifelong learning efforts in the engineering profession.

The working group holds monthly calls, and SPE’s experiences have provided a critical template for other engineering organizations to develop their discipline-specific competencies. The challenge now is to bridge SPE’s work in discipline-specific technical and non-technical skills with more generic competency model work that has recently been released by AAES to create a holistic lifelong learning roadmap for SPE members. Behrooz Fattahi, AIME 2014 president and SPE Soft Skills Committee charter member, asked AIME’s Executive Director and AAES LLWG co-chair, Michele Lawrie-Munro, to work with SPE’s Soft Skills Committee to make these connections.

Framework for the Engineering Profession

The Engineering Competency Model (above), released by AAES in July 2015, was created as a guideline for developing the engineering workforce as a whole. Funded by a grant from the United Engineering Foundation, the AAES LLWG partnered with the US Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to prepare this free public resource. The collaboration is part of the Industry Competency Model Initiative, in which the Employment and Training Administration and industry partners work together to develop and maintain dynamic models of the foundational and technical competencies necessary in economically vital industries and sectors of the US economy. The group has overseen competency models for 26 professions, including machinists, nurses, and emergency responders, advanced manufacturing workers, and cybersecurity and information technology specialists.

“The Engineering Competency Model has the potential to unite the profession on the fundamentals that engineers will need to solve the global challenges we are facing,” said Jerry Carter, chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying and cochair of the LLWG.

The model was constructed as a tiered pyramid, creating a system that splits into three sections: foundational, ­industry-related, and occupation-­related. The first three tiers are foundational, showing personal, academic, and workplace skills that are common to the engineering profession. Tiers 4 and 5 are industry-related, with both industrywide skills and industry-specific areas, the latter to be determined by discipline-­specific representatives. The sixth and final tier is occupation-related and is divided into two sides: management competencies and requirements for a particular position within the engineering profession.

The specific guidelines offered in the model were designed to help employers and employees alike understand the core set of abilities needed to enter the engineering profession, in general, and to assist employees in maintaining their skills and be successful throughout their careers. The model is also meant to be a living template—engineering organizations are encouraged to not only adopt the model, but also to build on it by adding more discipline-specific technical skills (Tier 5).

Lifelong Learning and Professional Skills

Lawrie-Munro said a presentation at the AAES meeting in October 2012 about the need for lifelong learning opened her eyes to the need for a competency model and continuous improvement in the engineering profession. The National Academy of Engineering’s report presented by Debasish “Deba” Dutta, now the provost at Purdue University and at that time with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with the University of Illinois’ Lalit Patil, and James B. Porter Jr., retired vice president of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, recommended AAES take the lead, along with academia and employers, to ensure the importance of lifelong learning was promoted. The engineering competency model embodies this. “We took that to heart and formed our lifelong-learning working group at AAES,” said Lawrie-Munro, who has also cochaired the effort with Cathy Leslie, executive director of Engineers Without Borders USA.

The report pointed out, “For too long, the issue of lifelong learning for engineers has been on the back burner, even as American industry has heavily invested in MBA and executive business education. A plan for vigorous, continual intellectual renewal through broad-based commitment to lifelong learning could have a powerful role in ensuring that the United States remains competitive in the face of accelerating technological change and pressures on an aging US engineering workforce that is not being replenished sufficiently rapidly.”

Leslie, a civil engineer, said Engineers Without Borders leaders had noticed that many of their volunteer engineers, both students and professionals, lacked skills such as leadership, technical writing, and a sense of global awareness and perspective. Though today’s students are good at giving presentations, they are less prepared in how to handle team communications, team dynamics, and multicultural teamwork, Leslie said. The competency model comes at just the right time for millennials (loosely defined as those who reached young adulthood about the year 2000) who need a career roadmap, Leslie said. “The millennials of today don’t mind working hard, as long as they know what they’re working for,” she said. “I think the model establishes a great baseline. If you look at the ECM (Engineering Competency Model), it’s not just about math and science skills,” Leslie said. “It’s about being ethical. It’s about understanding public policy, quality control, and health and safety. It’s about understanding sustainability and the impact of projects on our environment. We’ve agreed on what being professional means.”

Model Development Process

To begin development of the model, the US Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration assigned a dedicated research team to oversee the project, and members of the LLWG provided the team with a vast amount of background information to review, including accreditation criteria, bodies of knowledge from various engineering societies, the Project Lead the Way outline, and curricula and related resources from academic institutions around the US. Project Lead the Way is a leading science, technology, engineering, and math program used in more than 8,000 schools across the US. The working group also identified subject matter experts from AAES member societies, which represent industry and academia, to assist the research team in developing and critiquing the draft model through a series of webinars designed to gather feedback and further refine the draft. Subject matter experts from AIME’s member societies included Jeff Fergus, a professor in the Materials Research and Education Center at Auburn University and member of The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society, and Andy Schissler, petroleum engineering exam coordinator at the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration.

Throughout the development of the competency model, the working group sought feedback and input from stakeholders across the engineering community—from educators of future engineers to those who employ engineers. A webinar was held in February 2015 for AAES member societies and other stakeholders to explain the development process, discuss how the model could be a useful tool for engineering-related societies in the future, and get feedback on the preliminary draft. The working group also distributed a survey to solicit feedback from the engineering community and gathered input from more than 100 engineering leaders, which was used to inform updates and revisions to the model.

In April 2015, the working group and the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration met with the subject matter experts, representatives from AAES member organizations, and other members of the engineering community to gather additional insight and finalize the competency model. At this meeting, Lawrie-Munro shared SPE’s online competency tool, which generated great interest, especially from the American Chemical Society, another leader in the engineering profession in the soft skills development arena.

Another society participant in the LLWG has been the Society of Women Engineers. Executive Director Karen Horting, and former Executive Director Betty Shanahan, recognized 5 years ago the need for lifelong learning that goes hand-in-hand with developing workplace and competency skills. In 2010, that society released a Leadership Competency Model. Shanahan is also a member of SPE’s Soft Skills Committee.

The Engineering Competency Model has been endorsed by AAES’ representative body, the General Assembly. An interactive version of the model with detailed explanations of each of the competencies and resources used to build it is available online through the US Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration’s Competency Model Clearinghouse website. Visit for more information.

The LLWG of AAES will ­continue promoting and encouraging adoption of the Engineering Competency Model through 2016 with outreach at specific events and through a video for use in academia as well as a print-on-demand one-pager and detailed PowerPoint presentation. Additionally, it plans to guide other engineering associations interested in developing their Tier 5 discipline-specific competencies.

Talent & Technology: Development of Engineering Competency Models Continues

01 February 2016

Volume: 68 | Issue: 2

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