Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Can engineers drive economy?

Published:Sunday | August 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Mark Ricketts
Dr Paul Aiken, director, Mona School of Engineering, UWI.
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We might have blown our opportunities in the past by not elevating engineers to a pivotal role in our society. We might have missed out by discounting their full significance in ensuring robust growth. But all is not lost if one adds credence to the maxim, 'better late than never'.

Currently, there is a concerted push under way to give our engineers pride of place. Some of the factors that account for this are:

1. There is a new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain that reveals a strong correlation between the strength of a country's engineering industry and its gross domestic product per capita. This report helps make the case for increased spending on engineering education and infrastructure, having established that there is a direct link between a country's investment in engineering and its overall economic growth.

2. The articulated conviction of the Economic Growth Council that its five-in-four formula still has validity and by 2020, we will have a breakout where the economy will register a five per cent annual growth rate. Adding weight to this forecast are the heightened expectations associated with the logistics hub, the economic zones, and the expansion of public-private partnerships.

Of some significance is the possible rollout of the Circular Economy Industrial Park. With Alpart now up and running under new owners JISCO, which had floated the idea of the park, the likelihood of its implementation anytime soon would be a major boost to the economy.

At the level of detail, what is being contemplated is a large industrial park for bauxite, alumina, power plant, aluminium processing, and metal fabrication, including iron and steel.

3. With robust growth in the offing, the Government has determined that the economy needs 1,000 new engineering graduates every year, and with the lag time involved in training and education, there has to be an immediate start to achieving this objective.

With that backdrop, what is amazing is the aggressive and shared response of our training institutions, universities, and academic professionals. It is great seeing the passion and the level of coordination across institutions to capture the needs of students and the specific demands of the economy. There is Dr Noel Brown, head of engineering at the University of Technology; Dr Fritz Pinnock, executive director of Caribbean Maritime Institute; Wayne Wesley, executive director, HEART Trust/NTA; and Dr Paul Aiken, director, Mona School of Engineering, UWI, all working to create a new appreciation and approach to learning, student financing, training, certification, and education, for engineering.

 

KEY TRANSFORMATION

 

Dr Aiken speaks candidly of several measures under way to drive the engineering agenda. For one, he has been tasked by the University of the West Indies to transform the engineering school at Mona into a full-fledged faculty within a year.

"The faculty designation will be a demonstrated response to the national and regional call for increasing the number of engineering graduates," Aiken says. "It will also better align engineering at UWI, Mona, with engineering at UWI, St Augustine (Trinidad). Such alignment will strengthen synergies and build student and staff capacity."

Second, there will be a greater emphasis on more relevant engineering disciplines as needed by the business community. Aiken elaborated on these themes at a recent Mona School of Business and Management (MSBM) seminar chaired by its executive-in-residence, Jimmy Moss-Solomon, and including panellists Joseph Fan and Dave Hylton from the China Sinopharm International Corporation, Carvel Stewart, past president of the Masterbuilders Association; MSBM's director of the Professional Services Unit, Dr William Lawrence; and adjunct lecturer Dr Cecil White.

The seminar, in looking at the role of construction in moving the Jamaican economy forward, paid some attention to the past and future role of engineers in that sector, as well as the increasingly pivotal role that engineers must play if there is going to be a major transformation of the Jamaican economy.

Addressing his seminar audience on what he saw as gaps and issues in the engineering field, Aiken highlighted access to training, training scope, certifications, industry readiness, financing, registered professional engineers, and designing to standards.

To address some of these gaps and issues, he noted that the level of loan support for engineering students has now been raised to surpass those of students pursuing other disciplines, and come September this year, there will be in place at Mona, a preliminary engineering programme. The programme, as Aiken says, "Should be an option, especially for mature students with significant work experience in the engineering field to qualify themselves academically.

"Once students complete the academic year, which requires proficiency in mathematics, sciences, laboratory techniques and communication, they will be eligible for any of the BSc engineering programmes from computer system to biomedical engineering, from electrical power to electronic systems, and many others."

What is big on the agenda for Aiken and UTech's Dr Noel Brown is professional registration of engineers and international accreditation of engineering programmes, which will allow our engineers international mobility and acceptance. So, if the required mark of 1,000 graduate engineers is too optimistic, our engineers will know they have eligibility and marketability worldwide.

On the face of it, our demand for engineers and a skilled workforce should be very high given the need to build capacity and offset our infrastructural deficits. Think of areas of need: roads, bridges, utility plants, efficient water supply and distribution, and power generation. Then there are schools, hospitals, police stations, and to these we could add capital production in terms of factories, warehouses, hotels, offices and housing.

And it is not only what's new that's needed, but so much of what exists needs to be maintained, renovated, and upgraded.

While as a society we can articulate our needs and our wants, we have to start taking seriously the importance of being an elite player in the global economic areas and indices that matter most.

 

ENGINEERING INDEX

 

Drawing on data from several major worldwide institutions, an engineering index has been developed by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. The index includes data on employment, wages, gender, investment, the number of engineering graduates, the number of engineering businesses, engineering exports, and the quality of both the built and the digital infrastructure.

The index covers only 99 countries, Jamaica not among them. Of the countries ranked, 34 are in Europe and 35 in Asia, with the stellar performers being the usual: Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.

It's great to see our institutions and our academic professionals responding in a coordinated way to help drive economic growth through high levels of interest and investment in engineering.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@

gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.