Mobility of engineers: the European experience



In UNESCO Report Engineering : Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for Development Paris 2010 pp 358-359


Developing the international mobility of engineers is a key issue. One can easily find tracks of such a preocccupation in examining the archives of engineering institutions as well as of engineering schools. A strengthening of the internationalization of engineering practices and engineering education programmes can be observed in the last three to four decades. The trend is obvious within Europe and many efforts have been made in order to facilitate the mobility of engineers and of engineering students, academics and researchers. Very recently, the Bologna Process, which aims to create a European Area in Higher Education, has brought a new phase of total re-organization of the higher engineering education system in Europe, whilst also introducing new ideas about competency recognition. Looking at the consequences of globalization on engineering education, it is time to define some measures for an intelligent adaptation of the engineering curriculum and pedagogy to that new context.


Mobility is more and more becoming a key professional development factor for any professional - whatever the domain - who wants to find interesting work and secure good conditions of employment. Mobility of manpower - of professional competences and resources (slower but no less important than the mobility of financial resources) - is also crucial for any company or organization that has to compete in a global international market. But mobility can also generate problems that can be counterproductive for the global economy and for people if it does not take into account cultural roots or the need for a sustainable future.


From the 1960s to the 1980s, mobility was a concept largely promoted by company managers as weil as by specialists working in the fields of innovation and human resources development. Mobility seemed to be the miraculous solution for fighting the traditional trends towards conservatism. At that period, Toeffler (author of Future Shock) developed the idea that people should be encouraged and trained to change everything in their professional and personal lives, in a new international context offering more and more interesting possibilities. Toeffler's vision was largely right, but did not forsee the pace of change in society. It is only now (the first years of the twenty-first century) that we are forced to consider mobility not only as a benefit in a professional career, but really as an obligation.


Change factors for the concept of mobility

Comparing two periods - even a period as close as the years 1990-95 and the present period 2005-2010 - new change factors that have an impact on higher education and on engineering education can be determined:

       globalization is considered as a new dimension of economy with the development of international markets for nearly everything (products, raw materials, resources, manpower, services, ideas) where companies and now universities are directlyaffected;

       information and communication technologies (Internet, electronic documents, new media, new networks) are penetrating many domains and they are changing habits, and education is of course immediately affected;

       competence issues are considered as a way to move beyond traditional definitions of jobs and skills, where the outcomes of an educational process are becoming more important than the process or the outputs, and where evaluation and recognition of real competences are at the heart of many international debates.

       sustainability and sustainable development are central, especially when considering issues of cimate change and the needs of a growing population, where - in the evolution of engineering activities and education - sustainability means thinking and acting with a long term view, within an integrated multidisciplinary approach, and with a global analysis of impacts, interdependence and interconnectedness.



What is mobility?

       Mobility is often limited to the physical mobility, which refers to traveling, studying and working abroad. Of course, geographical mobility is the most obvious facet. However, it is important not to forget other dimensions of mobility:

       Professional mobility: How many times should engineers change their jobs in their life time? How many companies should engineers have experienced? How many projects should engineers have managed to be considered as good engineers?

       Social mobility: Involvments, responsibilities, representative activities in organizations and interactions with varied stakeholders in societies.

       Cultural mobility: Sharing views (or life) with people from other cultures for better understanding that the world is not based on a unique, linear thought.

       Trans-disciplinary mobility: Should engineers develop other skills other than pure scientific and technological ones?

       Methodological mobility: Problems can be solved through different ways, with different methods: how are engineers able to become flexible in that domain?

       Technological mobility: It is c1ear that tools are rapidly changing and they can become obstacles if one is not able to use them with some detachable distance.

       Thought mobility: Mobility can be linked with mental flexibility and thus, with innovation. Mobility is a way to think one's behaviour in given contexts; it allows adaptation to these contexts and facilitates cooperation, synergy and cross-fertilization.


Emphasis might also be put on ethics, poverty reduction, the development of the biosciences and biotechnologies, the strengthening of legal constraints, and considerations of terrorism and global security. All these change factors oblige engineers and engineering educators to have another look at their profession, at their career and at their professional behaviour - and even in their roles as citizens.

ln Europe, specific issues can be mentioned, which have also led to more flexibility and mobility: the enlargement of the European Union with the participation of countries from the Eastern Bloc; the single European currency; and the various national policies that affect the evolution of global and harmonized perspectives. Note that for a long time 'Europe'


ln Europe, specific issues can be mentioned, which have also led to more flexibility and mobility: the enlargement of the European Union with the participation of countries from the Eastern Bloc; the single European currency; and the various national policies that affect the evolution of global and harmonized perspectives. Note that for a long time 'Europe' did not exist except as a juxtaposition of nations jealous of their autonomy. Everything was, and still remains, complex in Europe due the huge diversity of policies and practices, which obviously affected higher education as well.


Looking at engineering education more closely, the crucial issue of attracting students is an important change factor. Will society have adequate engineers for the future? And what new ideas or resources are there to improve the recruitment of engineering students?


There are other aspects of the Bologna Process that could be mentioned (competency evaluation and recognition; lifelong learning; the development of a European Research Area), but suffice to say that it certainly forced governments, administrations, academic institutions, professional bodies and employers to re-think and re-define, together, their approaches in the field of higher education. It is an important step towards a more flexible and legible education system that offers increased mobility of people. This European effort for convergence and harmonization is generating interest in other regions that are also working on reforms of their higher education policies. The tools set up in the context of the Bologna Process could also be adapted and used in other continents, particularly in the field of engineering education.



A history of mobility : what to learn from the ENPC' archives  

The Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chausses, founded in France in 1747, has archives from different active periods of development and innovation followed often by long periods of conservatism and stagnation. The vision of the 'managers' of the institution during the more progressive periods is very interesting and most of their efforts were put on key issues:

      open, interactive learning approaches or methods (avoiding rigid traditional courses);

      emphasis on the work of the students or young engineers (projects, site realizations);

      making young people aware of a broad competitive environ ment (learning from the experience of others);

      offering some students the opportunity to travel abroad for periods of at least six months (this was developed since the last decades of the eighteenth century), with some 'business intelligence' work to complete;

      creating tools for the dissemination of ideas and projects, pushing also the engineers to publish in some new specialized journals;

      developing a strong experimental use of new information technologies (lithography, photography) for facilitating the transfer of knowledge among the engineering community;

      strengthening the links with partner institutions, also with scientific and engineering academics and with companies;

      promoting the learning of foreign languages and inviting foreign experts to deliver courses.

These archives show a real and strong vision of what a 'mobile' engineer might be, of what should be developed as 'mobile' behaviours and competencies over a long period of time. Analysing the results of such policies (what the educated and trained engineers became and did for society), there are no apparent reasons to reject such progressive ideas. However, these ideas were fought, even by some well-known scientists (for instance in France, by a group of 'positivist' engineers during the period 1820-1850), and often these conservative trends imposed their law with some very rigid approaches of education:

      multiplication of specialized courses (the 'content approach' to education);

      compulsory courses, with control of the effective presence of the students;

      poor evaluation methods (so that exams were easy te organize);

      imposing the same programme on every student whatever their route or origin;

      limiting the periods abroad for students (a lack of time for training them);

      creation of rigid teaching materials.

More recently, after May 1968, a lot of new perspectives were opened. Thus in France (but also in many European countries as weil as in the United States), many pedagogical innovations were stimulated. The key words of the innovations were 'flexibility' and 'mobility'. It became obvious that engineers (especially young engineers) should be prepared for a more open professional life. Continuing education (lifelong education) started te emerge as a key issue. Active learning methods were encouraged. Flexible courses were proposed with many choices among various possibilities. Joint courses or programmes were established and proposed to students. Some engineering schools started to propose double diplomas and integrated courses. And it became obvious that it was important to encourage young professionals te have experiences abroad to learn from different cultural perspectives.