Daily Challenge Day 9

There are elitist occupations which declare that an asymmetry of knowledge exists between them and the public, and therefore to protect the public, the occupation should be granted license and monopoly. I am not aware of any occupation where monopoly is deserved. Those occupations which have license and monopoly should have such taken away from them.

No! We can’t do that. If we did that then we would have dodgy doctors providing services. As far as I know we already have dodgy doctors practising. More importantly there are contentions that there are a shortages of doctors. However, any attempt to improve the health system by removing the need for doctors, is met by the doctors using scare tactics to convince the population doctors should be in charge of the work or doing the work, and so the shortage remains.

Consider that most things obey some form of pareto principle, therefore assume that 80% of work only requires 20% of a defined body of knowledge as would be required to do 100% of the work. So if the full body of knowledge is defined by a 5 years masters degree, then 80% of the work can be done by someone with a 1 year diploma. Assuming that the required study workload in hours is between 1500 and 1800 each year, then full knowledge requires between 7,500 and 9,000 hours. Or if we stick with 40 hours/week for 50 productive weeks, then 2,000 hours per year is required, and full knowledge requires 10,000 hours (if you believe in the 10,000 hour rule).

Similarly 80% of the work done by a person with a 1 year diploma, can be done by someone with say a 10 week certificate, for a total of 300 to 400 hours. If we really wanted to get work done then we should be training people incrementally and getting them out there doing the work. But our education system is not about training people, it’s about keeping people out of the workforce as long as possible, with fingers crossed in hopeful expectations that some jobs will be invented in the mean time.

Now I should be able to recommend that people look for someone with the post nominals B.Eng MIEAust CPEng NER and in the appropriate discipline. Unfortunately I cannot, or will not do that, as I do not believe that Engineers Australia’s assessment process is adequate (it lacks technical consistency and depth), and I don’t want to be liable for recommending an incompetent. This is not to say that they are incompetent, but that the whole point of the qualification process is to filter the chaff from the wheat, so that the variability in the competence of CPEng is far less than the variability of those who simply have B.Eng. But the apparent variability is not reduced, so employing someone with simply a B.Eng is just as risky as employing someone with all the additional post nominal detritus. So what are we to do?

The first thing is to use checks and balances. Unlike Queensland with its registered professional engineers Queensland (RPEQ), South Australia does not permit self-certification, we require independent technical checks. Two fools have a better chance of approaching the correct answer than one fool. One fool is highly likely to be ignorant of just how much they do not know. Two fools can question each other’s lack of knowledge, and both improve their own knowledge and each others knowledge. It is highly preferable to remove authority: I’m right because I have the authority to be right even when I’m wrong.

Quality Control (QC) is a process where by defects are permitted and then filtered out later. Quality Assurance (QA) is a system where by take every effort possible to prevent the defects in the first place. If we are to have science and quality, then we cannot have secret knowledge. One theory is that the openness of science destroyed the ancient guilds. The ancient guilds had secret knowledge and held monopoly. If you didn’t join the guild,didn’t get license to do the work, and didn’t gain access to the secret knowledge. Secret knowledge like sacrifice a goat on the first full moon before start construction. Since such action has little to do with whether a building collapses or not, such secret knowledge was discredited, and the guilds power was lost. As a society we should not want such guilds re-emerging.

The purpose of a learned society is to safeguard a body of knowledge and pass that body of knowledge from generation to generation. In the USA via their FE/PE examinations, and the review and reference manuals for engineering, we can find the closest there is to a defined body of knowledge for each of the branches of engineering. In the main the university education only covers the fundamentals of engineering, the engineering practice knowledge comes from the activities involved in during employment. For example hydraulics versus stormwater drainage. Structural design versus design of building structures. Structural design versus design of bridge structures. The fundamentals are a generic set of tools, the practice of engineering involves gaining experience applying that set of tools to a specific technology.

Since job advertisements typically seek people with 5 to 10 years experience, can typically expect someone with adequate experience of the technology to have 5 to 10 years experience. The person with a degree, probably has it hanging on the wall of their office (check your doctors wall next time visit their rooms). The degree will have a graduation date on it, is that date 10 years ago. If not then who is supervising them, does the supervisor have 10 years experience. If they have CPEng and less than 5 years experience, then they have probably been fast tracked via a graduate development programme at one of the national consultancies. Whilst they may have adequate time management and business skills, chances are highly likely they have less than adequate technical skills: the very skills which are meant to define an engineer and the very reason for seeking the services of an engineer. Go look for someone else.

It should be noted, that I agree with the phrase:

Wisdom comes with observation not age.

However, whilst I do not consider that duration is adequate to assess competence, there can be no doubt that the more different types of projects encountered then the greater the chances of bumping into new things which do not know about, and therefore if supervised by appropriate people, then will get to know about. If under the supervision of the wrong people, for example those only concerned about bottom line and no real interest in science and technology, then won’t learn anything, technical problems will be pushed aside rather than pursued and solved. The latter seems more common than the former. Modern degrees are just about tickets to employment, and careers, and progressing to management seems more important than doing the real front line work: such as technical calculations.

So the more different types of projects encountered and the more guidance provided by suitably qualified mentors and supervisors, then the less likely that a future project will throw up something that the designer has not previously encountered. Even if they do encounter something new to themselves, they will know how to tackle it in the proper manner. So 5 years experience a minimum, but 20 years experience would be a better guide.

But still we don’t know what that experience is. So 20 years experience designing reinforced concrete buildings doesn’t make someone adequately experienced to design cold-formed steel structures. It may give them a better starting point than a civil engineer who has 20 years experience designing highways. But in both cases they need supervision by someone who is conversant in cold-formed steel design. As they say: “oils ain’t oils”.

Most important of all what we need is an accessible well defined body of knowledge, which can be passed from generation to generation. Not just a body of knowledge with respect to the science, but the specific application of the science to established technologies.

How do you design a building? If a building collapses, society doesn’t run around like a chuck with its head cut off. Society knows that there are a set of rules to follow, or assumes there are a set of rules to follow. Actually there isn’t a set of rules. Sure there is the building code of Australia (or National Construction Code), and there are Australian Standards. But these only define performance requirements, loads to apply, and resistances which can permit. How to convert the applied load into a characteristic which can be compared against the permitted resistance, is not defined any where. Sure methodology is presented in a multitude of textbooks, industry manuals and handbooks, but few if any of these are defined as the go to reference. The reference which trumps all other references.

If we are to say a technician can do this, but not allowed to do that, then would expect there to exist a technician’s manual, which defines the limitations of the technicians skills and directs to a higher level, such as a technologist. But there are no such manuals defining occupations and their respective bodies of knowledge, and the limits on the application of such knowledge.

So the workforce represents a poorly designed set of cogs assembled into an equally poorly designed machine, which fails to perform, as well as, all expect that it should.

So get defining the body of knowledge.