Mind the gap - the usefulness of conferences to experience

Materials World magazine
2 Sep 2011

How do you define experience? More crucially, how do you gain it, and when can you say you have enough to carry out a task competently? My dictionary defines experience as ‘knowledge or skill acquired by a period of practical contact with events, especially that gained in a particular profession’. Defining it is one thing, gaining it is quite another.

Traditionally, many graduate engineers followed structured training and development programmes run by their employers, often as a prerequisite to chartership. Commendable, but expensive, and limited in scope and experience to one company or business. To achieve more balanced, wider-ranging experience, a new approach has been pioneered by the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The nuclear-graduates scheme was established in 2007 to recruit graduates on behalf of stakeholder companies and put them through a two-year series of work placements across the industry before they become full-time employees of the sponsoring company. This allows them to learn from a cross-section of the industry, rather than just one company. Partnerships are forged between client and contractor, while the regulator is actively engaged with the next generation of nuclear engineers.

In the oil and gas industry, the main challenge is not graduate recruitment, which remains buoyant, but how to fast-track graduates to bridge the looming skills gap as the baby boomer generation starts to retire. The vexed question of how much experience is sufficient, is even more relevant now that people are likely to have several employers over the course of their careers. Real experience is realising the limits of one’s knowledge and seeking the advice of others. Modern communication helps – the internet, video conferencing and distance learning enable contact with a vast network of peers and fellow professionals that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.

Then there is learning from one’s mistakes. As the writer and historian James Froude put it, ‘Experience teaches slowly and at the cost of mistakes’ – so much so that many companies invest in ‘Lessons Learned’ databases, but these are only as useful as the information that is logged. I recall a poster encouraging participation – a gravestone engraved ‘Here lie our mistakes, buried so that others may repeat them’.

Better still is to learn through the experience of others. There is no better way than face-to-face networking at conferences and exhibitions. The Institute organises several major conferences each year, and supports many others. Some are highly specialised (21st Century Rail) while others, such as Materials Congress 2012, should be of interest to any engineer, regardless of discipline. In early September, Offshore Europe rolled into Aberdeen, Scotland, as it has done biennially since it was first held in 1971. I never tire of it – the innovation and scale of achievement in the UK oil and gas industry continues to inspire old hands and new.

So whether you are just starting your career or close to hanging up your hard hat, I encourage you to attend at least one conference a year. Find out what your peers have been up to, and better still, share your own experience in a paper or presentation. I guarantee you will fill a gap you did not know you had.

Further information  

Nuclear graduate training scheme

21st Century Rail

Materials Congress 2012

Offshore Europe 2011