How to engineer a learning culture

Rapid innovations in clean energy technology are impacting the way engineers are educated, with a new masters programme at the University of Hong Kong tailored to the needs of clean energy developers and operators.

Born of the traditional electrical and mechanical engineering degrees, the master of science in energy engineering covers green project management, wind and solar energy, smart grids and sustainable development. The course, which was oversubscribed in its first year, does not dwell on conventional power systems, taking these as assumed knowledge.

'What we are going to teach are new areas such as smart grids, how to use computer technology to control supply and demand, how to use new technology to generate renewable energy,' says engineering faculty associate dean Dr Wilton Fok.

Of course, sustainable development is more than just clean energy, and while new opportunities abound for engineers in 'clean tech', even traditional technology and engineering roles will be strongly influenced by a more enlightened corporate conscience.

Take MTR Corporation, which now sees sustainable life-cycle and carbon assessments as routine. 'Engineers need be in tune with the community and environment around them and need to develop the skills to interact and engage with stakeholders,' says an MTR spokesperson.

These softer skills are more in demand than ever, with Hongkong Electric's general manager for corporate development Yee Tak-chow listing 'stakeholder focus' and 'global awareness' as two important attributes his company now look for in hiring engineers, along with traditional qualities such as good academic background and critical thinking abilities.

Meanwhile, Towngas now uses so-called Occupational Personality Questionnaires to assess engineers' suitability for ad hoc opportunities and internal promotions.

One way engineering graduates can learn these important skills is through Continuing Professional Development (CPD), now as much a part of an engineering career as in the legal or medical professions. Towngas, for example, set up the Towngas Engineering Academy (TEA) in 2009. For an engineer to be promoted within Towngas, chartered status and 45 hours of CPD are required per year.

Although based in Hong Kong, the TEA offers videoconference access to the firm's 3,000-plus mainland engineers. Academy head Lee Hon-wan says they will have full mainland access soon.

TEA includes expert seminars on topics such as climate change and water resource management, while recently hosting a session to dissect the causes of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. It also includes skills on management, language acquisition and professional communication.