Terri-Jane Yuzda

Master's Degree Program Helps Engineers Become Better Managers

About a third of engineers will end up in management during their careers. When they get there, will they know what they're doing?


A little more than three years after its resurrection, the University of Alberta Engineering Management Program continues on its successful track. That's because the master's program, designed to help engineers adjust and excel when they progress into management, meets an important career development need, says Dr. Peter Flynn, P.Eng., who oversees the program.

"Engineers frequently move into management. More engineers go into management than any other profession. About a third, in fact, end up in a managerial role, which is more than accountants, more than lawyers," says Dr. Flynn, the Poole Chair in Management Studies. "This program gives them some formal training to supplement what they've learned on the job, as well as their own intuition."

The program has matured to 60 students, about evenly split between full- and part-time. A number of students have graduated, too, since engineering management's return in 2000-2001. It first came along 10 or 15 years ago, but fell victim to a lacklustre economy and was cancelled. Bringing the program back proved to be a wise move.

Students appreciate not only the course selection but also the program's flexibility, which allows them to tailor classes around their work and personal schedules. "We get lots of positive comments," says Dr. Flynn.

Students must pick one course from each of four core areas - managing people; operations or project management, which includes quality control; simulation and modeling, which addresses reliability and other issues; and financial management. They're free to match the rest of the program with their own goals.

"It's really designed with a high degree of flexibility. It presumes that engineers are in different management situations, so we give them some significant freedom to follow their own particular interest and focus."

Many engineers get by in the management world without the engineering management program, of course. Yet there are definite advantages to learning the base of knowledge that comes from a range of corporate and academic cultures.

"Often people learn the management approaches of one particular company and they do very well. However, one of the merits of going into some kind of program is you get a broader perspective on management. You're exposed to more ways to think about things, and that makes you more reflective in your managerial role."

U of A's engineering management program also addresses the requirements of a changing world. A course taught by Dr. Ted Heidrick, P.Eng., for example, focuses on commercializing technology. It's an area of industry many engineers, not long ago, could afford to ignore, and in any case didn't take much interest in.

That's not necessarily so, today. "When I went to university, the presumption was that you were going to work for a large employer," says Dr. Flynn. "That was just what engineers did. What we've seen in the last 20 years, is engineers get good ideas, start up their own businesses and do quite well with them."

Adds Dr. Heidrick: "When I ask my class who wants to eventually own a business, one third to one half of them say they do. If you asked that 20 years ago, you might get one or two people all together."

His students produce business plans and are exposed to actual practitioners. They learn to evaluate their technology ideas, and find out whether they're worth pursuing and what further steps are needed.

Dr. Heidrick says the course dispels a common misconception about commercializing technology: that, as the cliché says, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. It doesn't work that way.

"I try to show students that succeeding is a complicated function of technology, management, financing and, most importantly, market," he says.

Says Dr. Flynn: "It's a complex process, there's lots of road-kill." Dr. Heidrick's course is designed to "favour the odds that you'll come out on the other side," says Dr. Flynn. Or not start across the road in the first place.

Better odds, really, is what the whole program is about. "There are lots of people who've managed and never done a master's degree, and I don't want to say you can't do it. But the program sure helps," says Dr. Flynn.


Dr. Peter Flynn, P.Eng.
Tel. (780) 492-6438
e-mail peter.flynn@ualberta.ca

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