Improve your job security

Professional development courses can give you an edge

By Cecil L. Smith, Cecil L. Smith, Inc.

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You attend engineering college to learn the basic principles and theory necessary for a life-time career. Most of the practical aspects you’ll pick up on-the-job. Some will come from fellow employees, suppliers, consultants, etc., some via independent study, and some from your successes and failures. Unfortunately, much of this is ad hoc — you make it up as you go. To climb the learning curve more rapidly, consider taking a professional development course, either in-person or online. (For the pros and cons of each approach, see the sidebar.)

Look for a course that focuses on practice. It’s not always easy to gauge whether an offering really has a practical orientation. Does the course outline cover not just what to do (training), but why do that way (education)? Does the organization sponsoring the course have a reputation for balancing basic concepts and practice? What are the course materials, and are they of any real utility after the course? Who is the lecturer and what is that person’s background? Avoid programs that have a stable of lecturers, one of whom will teach a given offering.

The pressures in today’s workplace favor a two-day course over a five-day one. Yes, time is money — but in the end you get what you pay for. You won’t learn in two days what realistically requires five. Although the outlines may be similar, a longer course will provide a deeper understanding and more likely some practice sessions.

Take an educated approach
Devoting the appropriate time to pursue professional development usually proves as difficult as finding the money. Value your time highly — never seek such education on the cheap. Know what you are buying and make quality the primary component of the decision process.

Sidebar: In-person versus Internet courses

Professional societies, media companies, product manufacturers, universities, etc. offer courses. But industry’s focus on the short-term has greatly reduced the demand. In the 1970s, AIChE’s continuing education catalog listed over 100 courses, with its Houston sessions routinely attracting more than 1,000 registrants. The AIChE catalog is no more; what’s left of the continuing education program (about a dozen courses) has been outsourced to ASME.

To some, live presentations such as offered by the AIChE are “old school.” The “new school” is distance learning via the Internet. Web-based courses do have some advantages over live presentations:

When you need it (just-in-time). If you have a problem, you’re after a solution now. You can take Internet courses when you want instead of waiting weeks or months for a live presentation.

Where you need it. You can access Web-based courses from your office or home, avoiding the inconvenience and expense of travel.

What you need. Unlike a live presentation where the lecturer determines the sequence in which topics are presented, many online courses allow the user to select the sequence, skipping those topics of little or no interest.

However, interacting with a computer doesn’t compare with interacting with other individuals. A major advantage of a live presentation is the opportunity to talk with lecturers who are knowledgeable in the field. You also can learn from the fellow attendees. They likely face the same problem you have or a similar one. While you must be careful to protect proprietary technology, discussions with other participants can be very informative. Providers of Internet offerings compensate with e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, etc., but it’s just not the same.

The fixed schedule of a live presentation can be a big plus — you can reserve the time to actually attend it! Today, every engineer in industry has more than enough to do. What actually gets done depends on the priorities. If you pursue professional development over the Web, can you keep its priority sufficiently high? Perhaps you can, but most find this very difficult to do.

The difference between education and training definitely pertains to Internet offerings. To date, most online courses fall into the realm of training. “Talking heads” (presenters who basically read from a script) can deliver training; similarly, developers who know nothing about the subject can convert traditional training materials into Web-based offerings.

However, education requires the intimate involvement of someone knowledgeable on the subject in developing the Internet offering. That individual also should understand web presentation technology and be sufficiently creative to devise ways to use that technology to teach someone to think. Merely repackaging a traditional course for Web-based delivery falls far short. The advantages of the medium should be used to enhance the presentation.

We must get away from an either/or mindset — either a live presentation or an online offering. What about a live presentation that utilizes Web-based materials in lieu of traditional course notes? The live presentation retains the personal interaction while the materials on the Internet ideally suit subsequent study and reference (especially if a good search engine is available). The usual standard for course notes is to support the lecture; let’s raise the standard so that the notes are designed for independent study later. This will result in truly a quality offering.


Cecil Smith is president of Cecil L. Smith, Inc., Baton Rouge, La. E-mail him at

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