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Lifelong learning: Designs for life


Graeme Philips of KnowledgePoint looks at the rising need for lifelong learning in the design and engineering professions.
The term ‘Lifelong Learning’ might be a modern description, but the concept is part of a rich tradition of adult education dating back to the industrial revolution when workers were encouraged to learn to read so that they could better understand the bible. In the early part of the 20th century organisations such as Mechanics’ Institutes and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) took up the mantle providing night schools and classes to enable the hardworking masses to improve their skills and knowledge in their spare time.
Today, continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential for most professions. Yet, when it comes to knowledge of software packages which are key to doing a job, the situation becomes something of a free-for-all. Although there’s a wide range of vendor-centric training schemes available, many employees are self-taught and levels of expertise vary hugely.
For example, an applicant for a product design job may state on their CV that they can use Autodesk Inventor – one of the most popular 3D digital design software applications for manufacturers. But how can a design office manager tell whether, on the one hand, they have used the software once or twice  or, on the other, they are an authority on Inventor best practice?
This situation has become more unsatisfactory with the rise of global teams and the need for outsourcing. Suppose that a large engineering firm working on a major building project across the other side of the world is running behind deadline. It needs extra help fast to design the pipework, for example. All its UK building services engineers are engaged in another, equally crucial project and it needs to engage a local team to ensure there are no further delays.
How can the project manager be sure that the local building services team has the right level of skills to do the job and do it quickly and efficiently? How can it convince the client that the work will be of a similar standard to the rest of the project?
IT Certification - proof that an individual has reached a specified standard in using a certain software package - is understandably popular in the US where most of the largest software vendors have their headquarters. But, until recently, many in Western Europe remained unconvinced of the need. In a recent UK survey by OnePoll on behalf of KnowledgePoint, only one in three of engineering design professionals polled had taken certification exams.
In contrast, IT and design professionals from the emerging economies have recognised that certification will enable them to compete for jobs in the West and in their own countries where IT services and application development are still strong sources of revenue. For example, growth in demand for certifications is strong in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and in Eastern Europe – regions where the overall expansion of the IT market has accelerated rapidly over recent years.
When Autodesk, developer of some of the world’s most widely-used design software, first launched its certification scheme, 89,000 Chinese designers and engineers were certified during the first year. Here and in other South-East Asia countries exam passes and qualifications are seen as fundamental to the hiring process and career mobility.
Now businesses in the west are responding to this trend to ensure they can compete for global projects on an equal footing. If a team’s skills can be validated by certification, then this can give them an advantage in a global tender process where consistency is important to ensure the quality of service. However, this is one area where a forward-looking employee is just as likely to be the driver of change as employers themselves.
Having the right certifications is good for a career – it validates skills levels, a commitment to personal professional development and the need for best practice. For younger employees joining a company soon after graduation, it bridges the gap between university or college where traditional methods and ideas are often still taught instead of the latest industry thinking and practices.

Whereas some universities work closely with businesses to ensure that courses are reflecting the current situation, others are outdated in their ideas and employers often say that new graduates don’t have the right skills needed in the workplace. In the KnowledgePoint survey, almost half of respondents believed that the current education system was making the skills gap worse.

While it’s important that traditional skills are not lost, newer methods must be adopted to compete in global markets and to meet new expectations of quality, sustainability and efficiency.
This is particularly relevant in all areas of design, where digital 3D methods of capturing ideas and developing them into a finished product, building or infrastructure are transforming the workplace. Software is becoming so sophisticated that it is creating 3D models that can be visualised and analysed as a digital prototype of the real thing. Buildings can be tested for energy efficiency before they are built and designs enhanced, honed and optimised on screen. This streamlines processes and leads to improved productivity and also gives designers more freedom to innovate and
develop better end results.
In fact, the architecture, engineering and construction industry is undergoing radical change as a totally new methodology, building information modelling (BIM) is helping to cut through inefficient working practices and eliminate waste. In its ultimate form it involves all the different disciplines involved in designing a building, including architects, structural and building service engineers and construction teams, adding their designs to a single digital building model. Consequently, not only are individual working methods changing but also the workflow of complete cross-organisational project teams.
Anyone in the industry who doesn’t learn about BIM or digital prototyping could easily be left behind over the next few years, especially now the UK government has mandated its use for all public sector projects over a certain size. Yet, in a recent UK industry study, the National BIM Report 2012, one in five of those polled were totally unaware of BIM’s existence. We are also seeing more dramatic developments with the emergence of cloud technology which is putting otherwise expensive and complex IT applications within reach of smaller companies – and making them available on mobile devices too. This is another game-changer with far-reaching potential for those prepared to learn and adapt.
Of course, it is up to each individual organisation how they work and survive within an industry. However, a greater emphasis on training and certification will help reward those that are prepared to make very necessary leap to greater efficiency and sustainability. It will also demonstrate to prospective customers that a team is capable of doing this and so eliminate some of the risk entailed in making important hiring and buying decisions.
In a world of few opportunities, it’s worth taking this one very seriously indeed.

Graeme Philips is KnowledgePoint's program manager for the Autodesk Training and Certification Program in EMEA. His focus is high level strategy, driving T&C adoption, program support and development initiatives, plus overall running of the Autodesk Program Team at KnowledgePoint

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