I feel honoured by your invitation as a distinguished guest speaker to speak on the theme: Engineering Profession and National Development. As a professional, this is one area that I am very passionate about, and having the opportunity to speak at gatherings such as this translates my passion into a form of advocacy.
Please indulge me to start on a lighter mood on how the mind of an engineer works.
Three engineering students were gathered together discussing the topic “Which set of engineers possibly designed the human body?”.
One said, “It was a mechanical engineer. Take a look at all the joints.”
Another said, “No, it was an electrical engineer. The nervous systems and its many thousands of electrical connections is the blueprint of a good electrical engineer”
The last said, “Actually it was a civil engineer, else who would run a toxic waste pipeline through a recreational area?
If you didn’t catch that, you are probably not an engineer!
You know you are an Engineer if:
- You are always late to meetings.
- You can’t read your own handwriting.
- All your sentences begin with “what if”.
- Your IQ is a higher number than your weight.
- The only jokes you receive are through e-mail.
- You see a good design and still have to change it.
- You are busy talking about the screen resolution and picture quality when your family is busy watching a block buster on Africa Magic.
Engineers are great people who spend their lifetime making things better. I think the only reward Engineers got from getting good grades in secondary school is the punishment of the Engineering College.
I will be speaking for the next few minutes on the topic: Engineering the Engineers for Nigeria’s Global Competitiveness.
From time immemorial, engineering has been a profession closely tied to survival of mankind. It is undoubtedly the foundation of many innovations. Even the early man was an engineer. Man has often sought new ways to ease living by interacting with nature to create products, systems or technologies that can help overcome challenges and obstacles. Through increased knowledge of natural science and mathematics, engineering has evolved from mere survival strategies into complex and advanced systems, which is now the major catalyst for the development of any nation and its economy.
Engineering and National Development
Engineers have huge roles to play in the development of any nation, especially in this technology driven age, where previously known approaches to construction, production, transportation, education, healthcare, and other sectors are rapidly changing. On a global front, the roles of Engineers have assumed a new dimension. As the world is becoming more crowded, more consuming, more polluting, more connected and less diverse, Engineers all over the world are finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy the need of this growing population. Production and consumption rates have skyrocketed and there is a growing concern about how modern technology can be employed to address and avert the current and future environmental damages.
Every country must appreciate the roles that Engineers play in creating and sustaining civilization. Engineering professionals have a stake in providing solutions to our shared problems as a nation.
Engineering Challenges in Nigeria
Here in Nigeria, the challenges with Engineering Practice are immense. While the rest of the world are fast-paced crystalizing the benefits of potent engineering, our country that is heavily blessed with enormous human and natural resources, cannot boast of an economy driven by infrastructural development and technological advancements. Nigeria grapples with problems such as bad roads, poor water supply, erratic power supply, poor housing, poor telecommunication and lags behind with every other indicator of social, economic wellbeing. It is a subject of intellectual discourse, highly debatable though, that Nigeria lacks the required competence in terms of Engineering and this is one major impediment to her national development and global competitiveness.
In preparation for this address, I took a probative look at a few challenges that stall the industry performance as it relates to Engineering Practice in Nigeria. I also contrasted my experience in Nigeria as an Engineer with decades of cumulative experience in various developed nations of the world. Having been active both in the academia and industry in Nigeria, I can tell you that I have had my fair share of some of the negativity and politics that our system keeps dishing out to frustrate some of the most noble efforts of professionals.
About 30 years ago, as a lecturer in one of the top universities in Nigeria, I worked so hard on a research project and even got some of my students to join me. The effort led to the invention of an engineering process that had huge industrial application potentials. After the project was successfully completed, I was amazed that none of my colleagues really supported me. In contrast, my efforts received so much criticisms, serious disapprovals and all the many reasons why it wouldn’t work. Even me, I lost confidence in myself and my invention. The invention was condemned, termed irrelevant and criticized to be inapplicable in Nigeria. Few years after, I had the opportunity to work abroad, and this particular invention launched me. It was well embraced to the point that I was invited and honoured by the United States through a program called “Professional with Extraordinary Abilities”. Today, the product has been fully commercialized and is being used worldwide. Ironically, Nigerian industries now have to pay propriety rights on a technology that was originallyinvented locally. This experience highlights thelack of progress, foresight, collective efforts and other problems that has stalled invention in Nigeria. This is just one of my personal experiences, I am aware that there are also several others that the system has discouraged their discoveries, ideas and creativity.
My speech today will be based on some of the cogent issues that I identified and some recommendations that can accelerate Nigeria’s drive for global competitiveness.
Educating Engineers in the 21st Century
To effectively address this topic, permit me to go back to where the problem usually begins, that is,the universities, polytechnics and other institutions of higher learning –the nurturing ground for most of the engineers we have today.
The 21st century engineer deserves 21st century training to be able to handle the 21st century challenges. By implication, engineering education in the first world countries has enjoyed constant remodeling to ensure that graduate students are equipped with market-ready skills upon graduation.
Most Nigerian universities in their current battle with moribund or completely non-existent infrastructure are finding it impossible to impart the right kind of knowledge and skills needed to develop the right caliber of engineers who can drive national development. There seems to be a huge disconnect between the kind of education received by engineering students, and the corresponding labour market needs. Though, in Nigeria, the labour market is skewed in favour of the employers, a lot of industries have raised concerns about the dire need to fill up critical job positions, which are often skill-dependent. This irony is founded on the fact that most school leavers lack the requisite skills and competences required to function properly in the industry. They are often hulled out with theoretical knowledge, but without the all-important practical experience.
Graduates, particularly Engineers, require more practical training to be eligible for employment. The SIWES/Internship program was designed to equip students with some of these hands-on skills but it has not recorded much success due to poor internship placements, lack of proper monitoring, short period of internship and other related issues. The fact that technical trainings are not backed up with adequate field experience makes it increasingly difficult to get industry-ready engineering graduates and seasoned professionals from Nigeria. This makes room for the influx of foreign technicians, feigning to be engineers into the country. They easily get huge employment contracts in core areas of our economic activities with outrageously high remuneration packages.
Case Study 1: Engineering Education France
French engineers are still educated in ‘Schools of Engineers’ after the baccalaureate – very few come from universities. Of around 160 schools of engineers, a few are known as ‘grand schools’ and are supported by government ministries including defence and industry. Their fees are much lower than those charged by the private schools.
France has around 600,000 engineers, of whom 400,000 have diplomas. They are joined by 30,000 students who receive their engineering diploma every year.
Most diplomas are obtained after five years of education, which includes two years industrial training.
Recommendation: To train proper engineers, it takes concerted efforts of the institution, the professionals and the industry. It is key to expose the student to the industry early enough through proper internship placement, monitoring and professional mentorship programs, which bodies like NIME can champion. Also, we need to look at specialised schools for engineering studies. Such schools should feature lower tuition, robust relationship with industries and dedicated government funding. Government intervention fund custodians like the Petroleum Development Trust Fund (PTDF) should structure funding programs for such specialised institutions. Generally, engineering should be made very attractive as a national importance. Government policies should be such that ensures capacity development in engineering fields. The United States President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced recently that 45 industry leaders had committed to double the engineering internships available at their companies in 2012. This was part of a national effort to address the engineering shortage by graduating 10,000 more engineering students from US colleges and universities each year. There should be a deliberate effort to address in-situ training of engineering students in Nigeria.
Research & Development Through University Industry Collaboration
University Industry Collaboration (UIC) is a key driver of development in modern times. Most of the biggest inventions and cutting-edge technological breakthroughs are the offsprings of solid UIC programs. Much of the USA’s prosperity has been on the back of its engineering excellence, powered by its higher education system. A varied array of institutions – from small community colleges through to the likes of Harvard and MIT, driven forward by a risk-taking, entrepreneurial culture, which is often backed by strong collaboration with key industries. By far and by fact, UIC is the turn-key approach for building the future.
Assessment of UIC in Engineering in Nigeria shows that there is a very low level of interaction between most industries and universities. A lot of industries remain unaware of the benefits of UIC and have failed to see the need of incubating technology in the academia. Also, the universities are boxed into the world of the academia, with hackneyed and often obsolescent methods, approaches and equipment. The institution and the industries are parallel on the substantive needs of the industries and as such students are not trained to fit in available job positions.
University-Industry Collaboration/Partnership has become a primary policy aim in most developed economies, where the universities seem to be a step ahead of the industries. For instance, in the US, Japan, China and other developed countries, extensive collaboration between universities and industry and the ensuing transfer of scientific knowledge has been viewed as one of the main contributors to the successful technological innovation and economic growth of the past two to three decades
Nigerian industries need to key into the global rise in commercial knowledge transfer and form creative synergies with universities. To be globally competitive, industries in this side of the world need to explore joint research ventures with university that can provide tailor-made solutions to their operational needs. The benefits of this collaborative effort are immense. It helps industries solve current challenges and to accelerate their innovation processes, thereby remaining in business for long. Industries get needed research, universities get better funding, society gets new products and technologies, a robust economy is built and Nigeria can boast of an engineering industry that is globally competitive.
Case Study 2: UIC between Dow Chemical Company & UCSB
DOW Chemical Company put up a $25 million annual investment at University of California, Santa Barbara in late 2011. It established the Dow Materials Institute (DowMI).
The DowMI brings together researchers from across the University’s Chemistry, Materials Science, and Engineering departments to work on fundamental challenges to world problems that are of interest to industry and academia. The high impact research projects focus on the theme of function by structural design, with applications areas that range from next generation microelectronics to high performance commodity polymers. The center enables the education and training of students and postdocs, and fosters their development in highly interdisciplinary, collaborative teams. The partnership between internationally recognized academics and industry experts creates a win/win and serves to both accelerate innovation and help shape future scientific leaders.
Amongst other things, DOW is also engaging the campus’ entrepreneurial community through its funding of an entrepreneurial program. This effort provides participants with the opportunity to learn how good ideas can be developed into successful and sustainable new businesses. DOW contributes to the $75,000 in prizes and seed capital that is awarded by the judges. The funding has helped a number of past winners develop their ideas into startup businesses.
UIC is a three-wheel mesh, which has the Government as the third factor. All over the world, various governments encourage participation in UIC through strategic policy formulations. Such policy comes in forms of tax credits, waivers, incentives, preference profiling for projects. The Federal Government of Nigeria’s education policy should look into incorporating programs that will foster UIC.
The industry, university and government should consider joint curriculum development for engineering programs. Which should involve Course Planning and Design; Encourage and support inclusion of new areas of specialised skills and support course contents that are relevant for future employment.
Encouraging Entrepreneurial Engineering
When Engineering meets entrepreneurship, innovation happens. For Nigeria to move from a consumer economy to a manufacturing economy, we need not just engineers, but engineers that can build for the world to consume, we need innovators. A pragmatic definition by a renowned professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes engineering as “the purposeful use of science”. I find his definition quite inspiring, because it ties the end to the means as it relates to engineering and its purpose.
As I shared at the beginning of this lecture, the research project I embarked on as a lecturer in Nigeria, and most of the other projects I have been involved in outside the shores of the country, were all motivated by the desire to be an engineer embarked on the purposeful use of science. It may be very easy for us to blame the government as being responsible for all our woes, but the truth is, a lot of us have completely undermined the much we can achieve through individual and collective efforts.
A good Engineer among other things must be creative and show good problem solving skill. These two qualities as it were, are the fuel for inventions. Engineering practice in Nigeria needs to go beyond contract execution to product/system creation. Nigerian Engineers need to start looking beyond the regular fancy jobs, where the finest of minds end up behind a desk, to starting up novel projects that can result in companies that will outlive them.
We need to start and keep looking inwards for ways of meeting needs locally, thereby, increasing the range and quality of goods available in our local market. As a nation, we need to focus more on local industries that can create home-grown solutions to national problems.Private individuals and government have to facilitate the growth of new and existing indigenous manufacturers in relevant sectors such as oil and gas, construction, transportation, and other sectors through local or international investments.
The many challenges in Nigeria present opportunities for our engineers to invent breakthrough technologies or form clusters that can become seedbeds for innovations and employments. These clusters can end up being the great corporations of tomorrow. A foreign envoy once remarked that he is amazed that Nigerians are leaving for the developed nations in search of the so called ‘greener pastures’. He iterated that ‘the government of Nigeria has left so much undone that there are several opportunities for individuals to build business.
What is My Recommendation:
One of our biggest drive as a nation should be the promotion of local inventions; breeding and culturing of research works that are of national importance/relevance; development of promising projects into viability and promotion of venture capital financing.
Universities, Polytechnics, Professional Bodies and corporations should look into exhibition programs or other promotional events for laudable entrepreneurial projects. This will serve as an avenue to showcase hidden prospects in Entrepreneurial Engineering.
Lastly, it will be most laudable for the government to establish research and development hubs for key industries like agriculture, oil and gas and other sectors. This hub should be funded by government from research to commercialization of key products/systems that are peculiar to Nigeria’s growth and development plan.
Government Factor- What is the role for government?
Adequate policies are not in place to create an environment that fosters growth of indigenous companies in Nigeria. Even relevant political offices where such decisions are made are not occupied by Engineers. The country needs to harness the talents of our professionals by putting in place suitable policies that can lead to a meaningful development.
There is a general misconception about indigenous firms and engineering knowledge and this has impeded the growth of Engineering consulting and contracting in Nigeria. We have a government who would rather spend heavily to bring in second rate foreign contractors and accommodate expatriates, leading to capital flight and boosting the economy of other countries when Nigeria is struggling. There is need to continue to push for massive inclusion of Nigerian firms in the awarding of contracts, as this is the only way the country can develop and sustain its development.
Nigeria as a nation needs to have a rethink towards the development of human capital in the Engineering sector. We need to develop our Engineers to develop the nation. The development that we all anticipate can only be achieved by empowering our own engineers to innovate, to create, to communicate, to collaborate for the purpose of solving our problems as a nation. To achieve this, we must be ready to invest at all levels from training to local enterprise development and ensuring that policies are in place to promote technological advancement in the country.
Engineers on their part need to brace up to the enormous responsibilities on their shoulders. The country needs more engineers with entrepreneurial mindset that can create or work with local industries and draw support from indigenous and foreign investors. Industries need to embrace universities and pursue collaborative Research and Development ventures that can make the practice of engineering globally competitive.
Professional bodies alike need to advocate and standardize practice. Engineers have to be compulsorily registered and institutions of learning accredited. Nigerian Engineers need to be put on a career path of Continuous Professional Development. Indigenous companies have to be certified and regulated; ethics and standards needs to be further entrenched. Professional bodies must air their voice when it comes to policy formulations in all the areas that affect the practice of engineering.
The world, where it is and where it will be, is on the drawing board of the engineers. Fellow engineers, the present and the future of Nigeria depend on you. It is your creativity and innovation with the mindset of entrepreneurship that will guarantee that we are no more dumping grounds for Korea, Indonesia and China. It will also ensure that we have a rapid development.
Thank you for listening and God bless you all.
Prof. Toyin Ashiru is Managing Director / CEO Tricontinental Oil Services Limited