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Training of Young Engineers: A European Overview
European Microwave Week (EuMW) features the latest developments in the RF and microwave industry and identifies future initiatives. The future does not just depend on academic and commercial development, however, but also relies on the selection, nurtu...
Europe is a varied continent made up of diverse and disparate countries, each with its own education system and provision for technical training. The RF and microwave industry transcends national borders and regardless of their geographical location, academic institutes, research labs and manufacturing companies must encourage and invest in young engineers to ensure commercial success and the future health and prosperity of the industry as a whole.
Where do we stand in 2007? Currently Europe is in a similar position to California 10 years ago with native students being less interested in ‘hard science’ and more attracted to higher profile careers in fields such as biology/medicine, law and business. This has resulted in a high number of electrical and electronic engineering students coming from far afield such as the likes of India (especially for the UK), Asia (including China) and Africa, with Eastern Europe also increasing its presence.
Barriers and Challenges
Such diversity is not a problem, perhaps with the exception of the defence sector where security clearance may be an issue. A more practical barrier is the language barrier. English is the language of technology, but students expert in electronics and physics often do not have the same facility for learning languages.
Furthermore, students from outside Europe face the double challenge of learning the local language plus English. Inside Europe the attainment of the right level in English can be an issue too — not so much in the Nordic countries and Holland, but more in France, Germany and Spain.
Some steps are being taken to address the situation. For example, in France, the plan for the future definition of master of science degree calls for all students to take a test in English to a predefined level. However, only 20 percent would currently be at that level.
Even without the selection criteria being too strict, recruitment is often difficult and not helped by the bad press that the electrical and electronics industry has had in recent years. Ideally placed for employment are the small number who have been educated to the RF and microwave curriculum. However, employers are looking for the complete package — those that not only have the technical knowledge, but who also possess ‘soft skills’ such as creativeness, flexibility and the ability to work in a team. Finding such rounded candidates may be easier said than done, but once recruited he/she will need to further his/her technical skills.
In particular, there are two simple processes that need to be grasped: design and verification. Historically, particularly at conferences, there has been a good deal of emphasis placed on how to design RF and microwave circuits, systems and subsystems, but not so on verification. And how do you verify your device? Through test and measurement.
In medicine, diagnostics is seen as a vital and important skill. That is not generally the case in our industry but should be, with engineers being encouraged to develop diagnostic skills associated with test and measurement. The verification of a design depends on the ability of engineers to properly diagnose what is going well, what is going wrong and what should be changed. Just like a doctor having the appropriate tools and knowledge and the skills to use them correctly is paramount.
Medical students get plenty of opportunities to develop their diagnostic skills, but electrical and electronic engineering students often do not. Ask an electronics engineer how much of his/her studies were spent using an oscilloscope or spectrum analyser and the answer is likely to be one hour or maybe 10. It is unlikely to be longer. This lack of provision for using real instruments sufficiently is often a question of cost as creating labs in the education system is a major investment for technical schools and universities.
It is easier and cheaper to bypass the lab and use a PC — to inhabit the virtual world that is so familiar to young students whose own lives are surrounded by computers and games. Now in their studies too they spend a significant amount of time in the virtual world of simulation. This is necessary, but it has to be balanced with working on real devices, real circuits, real functions and real systems.
Training and more broadly technical/educational development is an ongoing process that should continue throughout a person’s career and employment. The ideal is a combination of self-learning and formal training within a company or educational institution.
Self-learning — an individual’s personal desire and willingness to improve their own worth and prospects — is potent, but is allied to self-motivation, which is often difficult. After all, we accept that we need to keep fit, but frequently find an excuse not to due to time constraints, etc. However, those who can balance self-learning with more structured training have a distinct advantage.
Whatever the training medium used, companies need to invest time, effort and resources into developing the technical skills of all employees, from the top to the bottom, both for the good of the individual and the organisation. In larger companies employee development and training can be mandatory, which is a good thing so long as the training offered is not just provided for the sake of it and is structured and focussed on the practical. Some big companies provide e-training with tools provided on the intranet and with a pre-defined curriculum.
Less formally the Internet offers a wonderful opportunity for learning, as it holds a vast amount of technical information. It is a medium that is especially attractive to the young, is an environment they are happy to inhabit and satisfies their natural curiosity. I say to students that instead of spending one hour a day on chat lines and music why not spend half of that time learning on the Internet?
The Real World
As has been mentioned, the virtual world may be all well and good for the ‘entertainment’ element of the Internet, but the challenge, particularly for the test and measurement engineer, is to be able to differentiate between the real and virtual world, namely simulation and measurement, specifically the necessity to manage the paradox of achieving the objective of accuracy while recognising the uncertainty of the measurements being carried out.
Instruments, simulations and computers give results, but it is up to the engineer to decide their validity. Thus, teaching about uncertainty of measurement and how to evaluate and understand specifications are crucial. Manufacturers provide specifications, typical values, etc., but engineers still need to ask, “What is the uncertainty of my measurement under the prevalent conditions?” They also have to acquire the practical skills to enable them to arrive at an answer.
Such questions are a lot easier to answer when working within strongly defined standards, where there is a consensus. In particular, the telecom industry is creating standards that are well defined. This enables students to understand better the uncertainty and assess the expected accuracy. In other domains the situation can be a lot fuzzier.
The same dilemmas arise in design and the use of simulation software. Design tools like EDA use real world models, but are not perfect and must be used within the prescribed parameters. This sounds obvious, but I have seen software used for simulating 40 GHz circuits where the documentation states that the models are not valid above 20 GHz. What is worse is that the results are treated as the ‘truth’. We must be equipping engineers with the confidence and capability to question the results of simulation and measurement, and furnish them with the skills to judge the accuracy correctly.
Looking forward a key question in Europe is, “How do we ensure that the RF and microwave industry attracts and retains the required calibre of engineer?” One answer is to raise the visibility of the electronics industry, to celebrate its achievements and recognise its contribution to society and modern life. After all, the mobile phone is very visible, especially to the young, and its components are RF and microwave electronics.
We need to publicise the work of those developing such technology rather than just the applications they enable. Ironically, in this regard, the industry can be its own worst enemy in terms of its own research objectives. For instance, one of the aims of 4G is to make technology easier to use and so less visible, which means that we do not demonstrate the value of working in electronics.
There are various ways that the visibility can be increased and that young engineers can be encouraged to learn and progress their careers, including specific content focussing on future engineers from high technology companies and electronics media, together with the promotion of the value of electronics through technology TV shows. Relevant and focussed conferences such as European Microwave Week are ideal platforms for young engineers to be exposed to and experience the breadth and depth of current technological development, participate in tutorial sessions, and network with their peers and counterparts.
The delivery of training should be a high priority for individual European countries, the continent as a whole and the companies that operate in it. Investment in young engineers is the only way for our industry to move forward and have a bright and productive future.
Michel M. Bègue is currently field development manager in Europe with Agilent Technologies Inc. and associated professor at Paris Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC). His 30 years plus experience in the RF industry includes microwave circuit design, RF front-end design, and EW engineering with Thomson-CSF and Sfena. He worked in microwave and wireless sales development and marketing with Hewlett-Packard test and measurement that became Agilent Technologies.