The battle for quality

Companies and universities discuss strategies for improving engineering education

The debate over the role engineers play in Brazil’s development and in the competitiveness of the productive sector has reached a new level. On the one hand, the argument that we need to increase the number of educated professionals in order to respond to the challenge of business innovation has lost ground. It turns out the country actually has invested in expanding university openings. Over a 15-year period the contingent of engineering graduates quadrupled—from 25,000 in 2001 to more than 100,000 in 2016—without achieving a corresponding impact on the productive sector’s capacity for innovation. The perception of a reputed shortage of engineering professionals has also been blunted over the last three years due to the downturn in the economy, which resulted in a shrinking labor market.

On the other hand, a different concern has gained ground regarding the educational deficiencies among engineering graduates, including a scarcity of certain skills, such as the ability to manage projects, to work as a team, and to quickly absorb new information. Skills recognized as key in order for corporations to confront the technological and organizational transformations that are on the horizon. Thus, the debate has moved towards upgrading the quality of engineering degree programs. In March, the National Education Council (CNE) received a proposal to update the curricular guidelines for engineering degrees that is indicative of this change in perspective. Formulated by the Mobilization for Business Innovation (MEI), a forum linked to the National Confederation of Industry (CNI), and the Brazilian Association for Engineering Education (ABENGE), the document proposes that engineering education be based on the development of competencies rather than solely on the rote mastery of content. It also recommends that entrepreneurship become an important area of activity for engineers, and advises changes in how programs are evaluated, by adopting parameters that measure how much students have learned and the impact of graduates on the job market.

“In addition to improving the current assessment model, we advocate the creation of an accreditation system, capable of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each program and suggesting measures for improving them,” says sociologist Zil Miranda, a CNI advisor who coordinated the MEI working group responsible for the proposal. “We hope that CNI, which encouraged us to prepare the proposal, will now put it forward for public consultation, and that we’ll see it approved by the MEC [Brazilian Ministry of Education],” says Vanderli Fava de Oliveira, a professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora and president of ABENGE. For him, one of the principal challenges is to make private engineering programs, where the majority of the recent expansion occurred, provide education with quality equal to that of public universities. “Many were created to offer the bare minimum. We need to create incentives for improving the quality of private college programs, and a policy for student financing that helps students pay for expensive tuitions,” Oliveira adds.

Six out of 10 undergraduate engineering degrees are the result of night school courses and 90% of these are in private institutions. “Most engineers trained at night school courses at private institutions don’t have the profile of an engineer who’s capable of bringing technological innovation to a company. A solid engineering education would require that at least part of the coursework be done while attending campus full-time,” says José Roberto de França Arruda, a professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). Currently 85% of the enrollments in full-time programs are at public universities.

A common objective in the proposals for improving engineering programs is that educational institutions need to strengthen ties with business in order to bring students’ educations closer to reality. This measure could help curb engineering dropouts: only 75% of undergraduate students enrolled in a given year return the following year. “Our capacity for training engineers is much greater than what we’re accomplishing now. If the dropout problem is solved, it would be possible to double the number of graduates without increasing the infrastructure,” says Humberto Pereira, president of the National Association for the Research and Development of Innovative Companies (ANPEI), and vice president of engineering and technology at Embraer.

Pereira believes that it will be necessary to simplify the engineering education system. “In an attempt to embrace a large number of technologies, numerous specializations have been created. A less specialized engineering education with a more uniform curriculum would create wider horizons for a professional life,” he says. “A more robust core education, linked to the interaction with experimental models used in industry, would help to reduce the dropout rate and provide manpower for the challenges of innovation.” For Arruda, from UNICAMP, engineering specialties are becoming anachronistic. “An engineer who’s capable of innovating must have an in-depth education in the basic sciences, mathematics, statistics, and computing. Twenty-first century engineering requires advanced basic science education. As with electronic engineering, today all engineers need the most advanced basic science available or at least an education that allows the engineer to understand the basic sciences. The professional of the future needs to be able to read journals like Science and Nature without the least difficulty understanding them.”

Data compiled by Renato Pedrosa, a professor at the Institute of Geosciences at UNICAMP, show that in 2015 Brazil was number four in countries ranked by number of undergraduate diplomas given in the fields of engineering, manufacturing, and construction (105,931), behind only India (817,000), the United States (123,000), and Mexico (111,000). In many sources, China is mentioned as graduating more than one million engineers per year, although this information is not listed in its principal national statistics. In per capita terms the situation in Brazil is less favorable: only 51 engineers per 100,000 inhabitants graduated in 2015, which was surpassed by countries like South Korea (157/100K), Chile (108/100K), and Germany (101/100K).

The increasing enrollments in engineering programs reached a ceiling in 2015 and began to recede the following year, due to the economic recession. According to the data from the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP) compiled by Pedrosa, the number of enrollments in engineering programs in 2016 was 302,000, compared to a record 352,000 in 2015. In public institutions, the contingent fell from 76,000 new enrollments to 64,000, while in private schools it dropped from 276,000 to 237,000. The total number of students enrolled was reduced from 1,042,000 to 1,006,000.

Reduced interest in the engineering profession has revived an old issue: the mismatch between the number of graduates and the actual capacity of the labor market to absorb them. A study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) showed that of the more than 40,000 engineers who graduated in 2011 in Brazil, 29% were unemployed. And among the 71% who had formal employment, only one-third worked in an engineering capacity, while more than half worked in technical or secondary-level jobs. “By the end of 2012, a year when the economy was actively growing, only about 13,000 engineers who’d graduated in 2011 had obtained jobs that required higher education, with 8,400 working in engineering-related activities,” says Pedrosa. This would, he observes, leave the other 16,000 engineers with master’s degrees in a state of underemployment. According to the researcher, the premise that the country needed more engineers, which was used to expand the number of student vacancies, had no basis in actual demand. “There is no evidence of a dearth of engineers. What’s in question is whether there’s a shortage of well-educated engineers. With the downturn in the economy, this problem has become even more acute, since the country has trained almost 100,000 engineers with postgraduate specialties, which will increase the number of unemployed and underemployed,” he says.

Vanderli Fava de Morais, from ABENGE, sees the situation differently. In his view it is customary in engineering to train professionals who are attracted by job offers in other areas. “It’s common in developed countries that a third of the graduates work in engineering, another third work in jobs that interface with engineering, and the remaining third go to work in other fields, such as the financial market,” he says. He states that, in quantitative terms, there hasn’t been a shortage of engineers in the country, but rather a scarcity of senior engineers, i.e., professionals capable of leading projects. “Students entering programs today will be junior engineers in five or six years and senior engineers in fifteen or twenty years. The number educated today could result in a shortage in the future if the country develops technologically.” In his evaluation, the immediate demand of today’s companies is not the correct parameter for defining the importance of training more professionals. “It’s the engineers themselves who create the need for more engineers, by solving problems that lead to the expansion of the economy,” he says, noting that Brazil educates proportionally fewer professionals than developed countries. The data brought to light by Renato Pedrosa suggest that this view may be overoptimistic. In his view, Brazil is already among the world leaders in the number of engineering graduates, but “the quality of education of a large part of those receiving diplomas limits their employability, even in other areas that require a higher education.”

Humberto Pereira, of ANPEI, points to a weakness in the Brazilian industrial sector, which employs fewer engineers than it could. “A lot of companies innovate very little and hire engineers not to generate innovation but to duplicate prior innovations in new applications. We still don’t have many companies or environments that foster innovation,” he says. Another cause for concern is the relatively low number of engineers in graduate school, compounded by the fact that most PhDs educated in the country don’t find attractive options other than working in the private sector. Johannes Klingberg, executive director of the Association of German Engineers in Brazil (VDI Brazil), says that in Germany the path between graduate school and the private sector is more open. “Eighty percent of engineering PhDs in Germany end up in industry. Here in Brazil there’s the view that a doctorate is too theoretical and won’t add valuable experience to a company,” he observes. Eduardo Zancul, a professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), believes the dynamics of the German labor market explains its assimilation of PhDs. “In the engineering doctorate programs in Germany, it’s common for graduate students to participate in R&D projects with cooperating companies. As a result, integration into corporations after graduation is facilitated,” he adds.

Most companies hire engineers not to generate innovation, but to duplicate prior innovations in new applications

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, sees a lack of boldness in R&D activities by companies in Brazil, documented amply, for example, by the low number of patents, lack of international competitiveness, and an R&D agenda that’s merely adaptive, rather than creative. This leaves an engineer with a doctorate seeing few intellectually challenging opportunities in the corporate sector. “Of course there are honorable exceptions, but here we’re talking about trying to find jobs for lots of innovative engineers, to such an extent that it affects economic productivity,” he notes.

Eduardo Cesar Students in engineering and other programs are dedicated to carrying out projects at the USP Polytechnic School’s InovalabEduardo Cesar

From the companies’ viewpoint, improvements in the education of engineers should be directed more towards solving problems. A qualitative study conducted in 2015 by VDI-Brasil interviewed 25 CEOs regarding the skills needed to assist in the deployment of advanced manufacturing, defined as a set of technologies that support intelligent industrial processes. One of their conclusions is that in order to work with increasingly complex technologies, engineers need to have a more flexible profile than what’s common now, as well as knowing how to work in multidisciplinary teams. “The trend is for engineers to be hired to work on projects that demand competence in working collaboratively,” says electronic engineer Maurício Muramoto, vice president of VDI Brazil. “What’s essential for companies is that the engineer knows how to learn. The speed of technological advancement has soared and the product life cycle drops every year,” Muramoto adds.

Several engineering schools in Brazil are committed to developing new skills in their students. One example is the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), responsible for educating the generations of professionals who established the aeronautical, space, and defense industry in the region of São José dos Campos, São Paulo. The institution created a complementary educational program, known as a minor, offered to undergraduate engineering students. Students will be able to choose from three main disciplines. One that has already been established, engineering physics, seeks to extend the students’ scientific education through a set of combined disciplines, preparing them for academic careers and for working in the development of new technologies in the industrial sector. Two other minors will soon be introduced: the first is innovation engineering, to develop competencies in the field of entrepreneurship, and the second is systems engineering and logistics. “The training is transversal. Students in the six ITA engineering programs can choose any of the minors. We expect at least 40% of them to obtain this training,” says civil engineer Anderson Ribeiro Correia, the dean of ITA. “We have a tradition of educating researchers and professionals for the high-tech industry. But in today’s companies the teams are multidisciplinary and often require professionals with a wide range of skills, in addition to a good education,” he explains. ITA students can also choose to do a master’s degree coupled with their undergraduate program. “We have students who have graduated with their master’s leave directly for a doctoral program abroad.”

From the companies’ viewpoint, the education of engineers should be more directed towards solving problems

Another innovative example is the Insper Education and Research Institute, a nonprofit private college in São Paulo. In 2015, Insper created programs in mechanical engineering, mechatronics, and computing, with the proposition that students work to solve problems brought in by companies, and are encouraged to develop skills such as communication and teamwork. “Whenever these skills are worked on, we tell students what kind of performance was expected of them,” explains engineer Fábio Miranda, coordinator of the course in computer engineering. “In the case of teamwork, it’s not enough to just interact with colleagues. Performance is considered satisfactory if the student, in the event of a colleague’s absence, for example, is able to understand the nature of their work and move it forward.” Students have autonomy in the execution of projects and negotiate directly with their “client” companies. The first Insper engineers will graduate next year. The feedback that the institution has been receiving from the companies where the students do their internships is positive. “Their proactive attitude has been praised.”

One of the most traditional private engineering colleges in the country, the FEI (Educational Foundation of Ignatius) University Center in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo, is also changing its teaching method. Created 77 years ago, the institution initiated an organizational shakeup in 2015. Under the mentorship of a group of entrepreneurs linked to the institution, the faculty received training on how to more effectively incorporate innovation and creativity into students’ educations. Simultaneously, an annual event was created, the Congress of Innovation and Megatrends, a space for discussing world trends and future visions for the profession and the job market. In the curricular sphere, integrative disciplines have emerged that allow the proposal of new ideas and the exploration of multidisciplinary projects. “We want students to be prepared to deal with any of the technological challenges that companies have to face,” says Fábio do Prado, dean of the FEI University Center.

The idea of ​​creating engineers with diversified educations led the Polytechnic School at USP to make its curriculum more flexible, for example, allowing students to study an elective discipline each semester. This change inspired the opening of Inovalab@Poli, a lab where students from different programs—including business, design, and architecture, in addition to engineering—work together on the execution of projects. In one of the disciplines offered, a student can commit to solving a real innovation challenge presented by an actual company, and the following year invest themselves in the same challenge, this time seeking to refine the solution. “The intention is to get students to develop skills for innovation,” says Roseli de Deus Lopes, one of the coordinators of the Inovalab@Poli.

The lab was inspired by similar projects at Stanford University in the United States and the University of Aalto in Finland. Since 2014, the Inovalab program for educating towards innovation has already taught six class groups including more than 350 students. “The emphasis is on working through the steps for implementing an innovation project,” explains Eduardo Zancul, a researcher at Poli-USP who also coordinates the Inovalab@Poli. “The student needs to research the company’s needs, deepen their understanding of the problem, establish the most appropriate methods, and create a project schedule.” Mechatronics engineering student Clara Cappatto, who is now a lab monitor, participated in a group that developed a mobile electrocardiographic device. The challenge had been presented by the HCOR Research Institute in São Paulo, and a prototype was generated as a result. “I was annoyed by the excess of theory at the beginning of the program, and the project made it possible to apply what I was getting in the classroom. I also realized that entrepreneurship is my vocation,” Cappatto says.