Engineering schools train hundreds of future engineers every year. In this article we delve into these unique schools and meet up with some of their impassioned engineers who are dedicated to learning and innovation.
With more than 5,000 employees in 13 countries, 80% of whom are engineers, Assystem is an independent engineering group specialised in carrying out complex projects. Our teams work on managing, designing, building and enhancing infrastructure in the energy (including nuclear), transport, building and healthcare sectors. Below, Emmanuelle Capiez, Assystem’s SVP Human Resources & Managing Director France, Christian Jeanneau, SVP Nuclear, and Najwa Zerrad, a recently graduated project engineer, give us their lowdown on engineering schools.
Practical training that fits companies’ needs
While every engineering course has its own speciality, all French engineering schools offer training that appeals to companies. In addition, as Najwa Zerrad says, the foundation classes these schools run not only offer students in-depth academic learning but also lay the basis for acquiring soft skills. Students are taught “methods for learning and reflecting”, but over and above the theoretical teaching, “we learn how to work together and aim for the same objectives”. In Christian Jeanneau’s view, this scientific training is “necessary for us to sharpen our reasoning, develop our ability to follow intellectual lines of thought and be able to deal with problems.”
Najwa explains that after the first three years of an engineering course (which may provide general or specialised training depending on the school) “we then apply the theory we’ve learned to practical projects. We are confronted with real-life situations and get our teeth into the industry. The classes really prepare us for working life because we are taught how to ask the right questions to the right people so we can handle complex issues. Team work is extremely important throughout the course and all of our projects are carried out in groups.”
In order to meet its recruitment needs and remain closely in tune with the worlds of training and academia, Assystem has forged tight-knit relationships with several engineering schools. Emmanuelle Capiez explains “Our strategic approach to recruitment and partnerships is highly pro-active in the engineering schools we have selected as our targets. For example, we offer corporate sponsorship, carry out joint innovation projects, get involved in the schools’ charities and associations, participate in forums, help design the content of educational courses through academic chairs, sponsor graduate classes and coach students through interview simulations.”
Assystem recruits some 2,000 engineers each year, 40% of whom are juniors. Emmanuelle continues, “Graduates of our selected engineering schools have followed courses that have prepared them to deal with real-life issues in our industry and profession. Their training and internships give them the numerous operational skills they need to swiftly fit into today’s fast-changing working world. Their training focuses on both technical and soft skills, which is an essential combination for successfully carrying through the projects and opportunities we offer them.” Emmanuelle believes that thanks to their engineering training they can integrate rapidly within the Group and achieve a successful career with us.
Being of use to society – an engineer’s number one goal
Roads, bridges, trains, power stations, etc. – the work carried out by engineers goes above and beyond industry and is first and foremost societal. According to Najwa, “What drives engineers is their desire to innovate and create for society as a whole.” Whereas researchers invent and develop solutions that work in a laboratory, engineers apply those inventions so they can be used by society. Christian Jeanneau sums it up by saying: “An engineer’s role is to act as a link between all existing technologies and make them available to the general public in a rational way that is useful for society [These technologies need to be] reliable, safe, ecological and financially profitable.”
Because not all innovations are necessarily a good thing when viewed holistically. Take solar energy for instance: while there’s no denying that the fundamental idea is a good one, it raises certain issues when it comes to the materials used to design the solar panels and the fact that they can’t be recycled. There’s still a long way to go before reaching a sustainable solution that can be deployed on a general scale. In Christian’s opinion, it’s up to engineers to weigh up all the factors, assess the usefulness to society of each innovation and then teach society how to use it. Najwa adds, “A humanist and pragmatic vision is the common denominator among all engineers.”
This notion of having a role to play in society is developed very early on in engineering schools. As Christian puts it, “Links with charities and associations are highly developed [in engineering schools], and student engineers learn how to live in harmony with society.” By becoming involved in a charity or association they can acquire the “soft skills” that are essential for their future careers. Najwa gained these skills by taking part in her school’s Junior Enterprise venture, organising its forum and carrying out voluntary work with a charity. She believes that “Engineers need to be humble and listen to and be open with others. They need to be pedagogues and to be able to summarise and simplify information to make it understandable for others.” Christian agrees with this, saying “An engineer has to act as a technical interface but the human aspect is vitally important as well.”
Training that’s evolving but keeping to its fundamentals
In recent years, engineering schools have had to evolve and adapt to new technologies in a fast-changing world. Christian Jeanneau believes that “engineering training has evolved over the years but it has also remained constant in many ways. The underlying fundamentals are still the same.” Depending on which school they’re at, student engineers learn about mechanics, dynamics, electrical and industrial engineering, the structure of materials, fluid mechanics, IT and so on. Students take part in projects, field work and internships in order to “apply their knowledge to solving new problems” explains Najwa. “Engineers have to be pragmatic, multi-skilled and adaptable. They need to know how to assess all aspects of a problem – including the human factors – in order to be able to invent and create tomorrow’s world.”
Engineering schools are increasingly creating links with the industrial environment surrounding them, including through internships, academic chairs, apprenticeships and corporate projects. Christian says, “Becoming involved in the world of industry during an engineer’s studies is much more important today than in my time, but that being said, the level of involvement could still be higher. Engineering schools’ laboratories are still too focussed on fundamental research and leave industrial innovation by the wayside. The schools need to have a better understanding of the requirements of companies and society in general.” Najwa adds “Engineering training mainly concentrates on the scientific element but in order to more effectively meet the needs of companies, greater importance should be placed on the economic aspects of industry.” For this young graduate, the key to a successful large-scale project is combining a scientific approach with strategic vision and involving engineers in the decision-making process.
Engineering schools are also growing more international. Most student engineers now have at least some experience outside their home country, whether through an internship, a university exchange programme or a double degree. In addition, French engineering schools now have many international students and professors, and engineering students have to have a good grasp of English in order to be able to graduate. Najwa considers this internationalisation to be essential because in order to meet the challenges of today’s society engineers need to “have a global strategic vision of the world they’re working in. University exchanges also help students find out about working methods and ways of thinking that are completely different from those in France”. In an ultra-globalised world, it’s impossible for engineers to envisage training or career opportunities without crossing borders.
Engineering schools – a solution to tomorrow’s challenges
In Christian Jeanneau’s opinion, engineers are playing an essential role in creating tomorrow’s world “which is being driven by the economy and in which we’re seeing a proliferation of technological innovations with disruptive technologies and ever-growing know-how. The thinking-based approach that engineers have is vital for debating and discussing the many issues that will face us going forward, including about the environment, our food chain and genetics to name but a few.”
Christian concludes by saying “The world’s citizens are drowning in a sea of technology and are finding it difficult to take a step back from it all. Engineers play a key part in forging the link between society and the world of innovation. They act as a filter, making sure that innovations are used in a measured and reasonable way.”