With the economy showing signs of being on the mend, more engineers are signing up for continuing technical education.

Engineers who have their Professional Engineer licenses are well acquainted with continuing-education programs. About two-thirds of all states now require that PEs who practice within their borders pick up professional-development units, gained by attending technical courses, to keep current. But PEs aren’t the only ones trying to update their technical skills. Educational institutions that cater to engineers say they are seeing more people taking courses simply in the interest of professional development.

“You don’t see a lot courses for engineers held on the slopes of Vail or on Caribbean cruises like you do for physicians,” says Thomas Smith, program director in the Dept. of Engineering, Professional Development, University of Wisconsin–Madison. “But we do about 400 courses annually and serve just over 10,000 people a year. We are starting to see demand for courses pick up.” The most popular continuing education courses at U of W-Madison are in the area of electric power, smart grid, green buildings, building systems, and lean manufacturing, says Smith. But different institutions tend to specialize in different niches, he explains, and the quality of courses also varies from one provider to another. “You can’t say a university course is always better than one from a course provider or association,” says U of W-Madison Director of Corporate Education for the Dept. of Engineering Professional Development Carl Vieth. “But because the way university-based courses are structured, every student and every course gets evaluated.”

For any continuing-education providers, the evaluation process begins when deciding what courses to offer and what they should cover. All the schools and educational firms with which we spoke say they use engineers from industry both as instructors and as a source of inspiration for course offerings.

At the U. of W-Madison, school faculty develops courses mainly by talking to industry practitioners and watching trends. The school has about 30 program directors for continuing education, all with advanced degrees, who come from the industries they serve, says Vieth. Course content is pretty much up to the faculty program director, who bases the decision about content on learning needs in the course area. As with many schools, U. of W-Madison often recruits as instructors industry experts who also tend to have ideas about what to teach and how to teach it, says Vieth. But the school’s use of program directors to set content, “is a different course design paradigm than at most places where they rely more heavily on a single instructor,” he says.

Regardless of who puts on the course, it pays to look at the course goals and objectives, says U. of W-Madison’s Smith. “A lot of vendors put out course descriptions that just list topics or say how wonderful the presenter is. But they are light on information about what you will learn and how you learn it. If the provider doesn’t know enough about what they are doing to specify goals and objectives, it is a red flag,” he says.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how good the course is if it doesn’t fit into your career plans. Smith says this is an often-overlooked point. To figure out educational needs, “Every engineer should have a personal professional-development plan,” he says. “If you are in a large company, this happens naturally as part of the annual review process. But you might not have this if you work at a small company. Then it becomes your responsibility to develop one.”

Problem is, developing such a plan takes a lot of soul searching, he admits. It involves trying to figure out where your company and industry are going in the next five years. With this in mind, do a gap analysis that identifies the skills you’ll need to get where you want to go. “We usually recommend people get a mentor or coach or some other outsider to help get that five-year vision,” says Smith. “Still, it is a pretty tall order for anybody to see where things are going to be five years from now.”

CEUs and PDHs

Another factor to look for is whether the course provider can give continuing-education units (CEUs) or professional-development hours (PDHs) through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET). “Any course provider can give CEUs, but if you want to give internationally recognized CEUs, you have to be an authorized provider through IACET,” says Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) managing director of professional development Kevin Perry.

IACET recognition is particularly important for engineers trying to fulfill continuing-education requirements for PE licensing. Individual states set their own standards for the coursework they accept, but courses from IACET-authorized providers are considered the gold standard in continuing education. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) also sets out guidelines that many course providers try to follow.

And PE licensing requires PDHs rather than CEUs. But there is a standard formula for converting between the two kinds of units. So whether the course awards CEUs or PDHs is less important than whether it comes from an IACET provider.

At SAE, located in Dearborn, Mich., about 2,500 students a year come through both online and classroom courses, about half as many as before the recent financial crisis. “We are in rebuilding mode now. We expect to grow back to about 5,000 students annually in the next few years,” says Perry. SAE course topics that are particularly well attended these days include vehicular electrification, diesel technology, turbocharging and variable-valve displacement-on-demand, and safety. “We see a lot of interest in technologies used to figure out what went wrong in an accident,” Perry comments.

But the economic downturn has not only put a crimp in course attendance. It has also made it more difficult to find practitioners able to teach. “It has become a larger and larger challenge, particularly in the last few years, to find experts who understand content and who are willing to teach it,” says Perry. “Engineers who are left are busy trying to keep up themselves and they are less available to teach.”

Perry says about a third of the instructors for SAE courses come from academia. The rest are either engineering consultants or expert engineering practitioners. A lot of ideas for SAE courses originate with the instructors themselves, under the guidance of SAE education program directors.

To make sure attendees are getting their money’s worth, program directors go through course proposals to ensure there are solid learning objectives and active learning techniques built into the content. New-course proposals also go out to at least three industry technical experts who serve as reviewers. Their feedback gets folded into the content before the course is finally ready for prime time. And there can be additional tweaks based on evaluation forms that students fill out at the end of their coursework. One final quality-control mechanism: “For instructors who are not meeting minimum performance requirements based on the student evaluations, we just take the course off the market,” says Perry.

Online coursework

SAE courses can take place in physical classrooms or online. About 25% of all SAE continuing-education students do their coursework online, and the percentage is growing. The same is true for courses taken specifically to satisfy PE continuing-education requirements. “More and more engineers do not want to spend time in a hotel room taking a seminar,” says Ken Hudspeth, manager of marketing and content at PDHengineer.com in Houston, Tex. The Web site is one of a growing number that specializes in providing online courses for PEs. The site, started by a PE who had trouble getting continuing-education courses, began its online Webinar program in 2003. “I get something almost daily from someone trying to get into this business,” says Hudspeth. “The people who are doing a good job at providing coursework are growing by leaps and bounds.”

Hudspeth says the firm’s most popular course offerings are those in the category of engineering ethics. “That’s because the subject is required in every state and it is cross disciplinary,” he explains.

The site gets its course material from about 100 authors, consisting of educators and PEs. The courses they write can take from one to 15 hr to get through and can span from 10 to several hundred pages of written material. Course-takers then complete online quizzes to get their credits.

Hudspeth says there are a lot of differences among the kind of material that continuing-ed sites provide. “Some sites only use public-domain documents,” he warns. “Material written by an author who has real experience has a different tone to it, and it is generally more fun to read.” Quality control can vary among providers as well. “We differ from some other sites in that we have a full-time review staff,” Hudspeth says. This staff gets involved from the course proposal onward. Reviewers will initially assess factors such as author credentials and the number of credit hours the subject should be assigned. Once course documents are complete, they also get a thorough review for hazy ideas, inaccuracies, and formatting problems. The review process is important and, “Another reason to look at larger providers is the tend to have top-flight engineers or instructors doing the review. It’s a tough task and you can’t have a first-year guy doing it,” Hudspeth says.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.