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Climbing the greasy pole

Dr Rajshree Hillstrom

Engineering companies are becoming more complex as trade becomes more global, logistics grows in importance and technology becomes more advanced. All of this needs management, but for many in UK industry, the terms ‘engineering’ and ‘management’ are mutually exclusive. While engineers are good at engineering, they may not consider becoming a manager of something beyond their immediate department.

But, for those who want to, ‘climbing the greasy pole’ isn’t an easy task. So how can aspiring managers get the skills they need, apart from learning ‘on the job’? One way is to take a course in Engineering Management; something which is offered by a number of UK universities.

Anglia Ruskin University, for example, offers an MSc in Engineering Management at its Chelmsford campus. According to the University, technical competence alone is not enough for the successful management of engineering companies; wider professional skills are needed. No matter what your technical expertise, it contends, if you want to progress towards a managerial role, you should consider such an approach.

Dr Rajshree Hillstrom is the course leader. “It’s for those who want to climb the corporate ladder,” she said, “and while it’s aimed at those looking to manage companies or departments, the course will also be useful for those looking to gain project management skills.”

But while many of those signing up for the course will already be employed as engineers – and often looking to study on a part time basis – the MSc is also suitable for recent graduates. “Recent graduates are unlikely to have managed people,” she noted, “and that’s one of the most difficult things.”

People management is one of the skills which Anglia Ruskin’s MSc hopes to impart to students. “Management of operations and production tend to be predictable compared to managing people,” Dr Hillstrom asserted. “Managers need to have ‘soft skills’ and those skills aren’t something which are learned during a first degree in pure engineering.”

Those soft skills will be needed when managers start having to interact with people from different departments and those with different career experiences. “They are needed when you might need to talk with the HR department or with those in purchasing,” Dr Hillstrom suggested. “Engineers might be thinking about designing and building a robust product, but the financial people might be thinking more about the bottom line. So, they need to be able to talk with each other and to take their overlapping skills into account.”

Beyond people management, Anglia Ruskin says its MSc in Engineering Management will develop a student’s practical skills and intellectual understanding in such areas such as finance control, operations management and basic contract law.

Another institution offering an MSc in Engineering Management is Brunel University London, which says its course allows students to understand how engineering organisations are managed internally and how they operate from a corporate perspective.

It claims that employers are not only looking for those with a strong understanding of technology, but also candidates who can understand business models, especially when it comes to the supply chain and corporate strategy. Like Anglia Ruskin, it welcomes established engineers who are faced with new areas of responsibility following promotion to management positions.

A spread of students

Dr Hillstrom said Anglia Ruskin’s course attracts a spread of students. “We have those who have just graduated, but also those with more than 20 years of experience. Having a mix of people brings an exchange of ideas. When it comes to project management, it’s good to have work experience, but not essential. And new graduates can get a flavour of what’s it’s like to be involved in ‘real’ projects.”

An MSc in Engineering Management is also offered by the University of Greenwich at its Chatham campus. It suggests the programme is a substitute for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). The course, it believes, will support the progression of engineers of all disciplines to management roles in the private and public sectors, as well as promote the importance of entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship – said to be key skills for leadership and management of change – along with the core values of ethical enterprise in modern economies.

How does Anglia Ruskin’s course content compare with that of an MBA? “There’s an overlap,” Dr Hillstrom accepted, “particularly when it comes to financial management. But this course is aimed at engineers, so there’s a greater focus on cost management and we do look at environmental management issues in greater depth. Overall, I’d say that there’s a 40% overlap with an MBA.”

Neither is Anglia Ruskin’s MSc course static. “It’s been running for some years,” Dr Hillstrom noted, “and its content has continued to change over that time, based on what industry wants. Feedback from industry is important and we meet with companies at least once a year to determine what it is they are looking for.”

Brunel’s course, like many others, can be followed on a full time or part time basis. For full time study, the course combines lectures, tutorials and group/seminar work, with the final four months spent working on a dissertation. Part time students can take up to five years to complete the course, with no requirement to attend lectures. This means students can create their own schedule, but Brunel says they should plan to study for 12 hours a week.

Dr Hillstrom said most of Anglia Ruskin’s students are part time, attending the Chelmsford campus one day a week for lectures. “Amongst the things they learn is how to do structured research, which can then be applied in their project. This project could be something which their company needs and they can take advantage of the university’s resources.”

Whilst Anglia Ruskin’s course is fixed, Brunel’s students can select optional modules to complement core studies (see box).

All courses require some kind of project and these constitute a significant part of the credits awarded. At Anglia Ruskin, students will conduct a significant research project which may involve a literature review, data collection and analysis. The dissertation at Brunel is an in-depth study of a manufacturing problem or situation, requiring a high standard of investigation and presentation. Students are expected to analyse a ‘real’ problem involving a company or workplace. At Greenwich, students will be expected to demonstrate independent thinking consistent with the expected research content of a Masters level project.

So why do students sign up for an MSc in Engineering Management? “They do the course because they want to get on,” Dr Hillstrom concluded. “Industry is getting more and more competitive and, when they finish the course, students should have the theory and knowledge needed to take on a challenging future.”

Neil Tyler

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Posted by: Lynn Bosworth, 12/09/2017

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