Full Ahead: Creating the Next Generation of Engineers

5 November 2009By Richard Boggs
Photo by Mark O'Connell

Are good engineers born or are they made? That’s not a new question by any means. This argument has been going on as long as man’s been tending machinery.

Two of history’s most famous engineers whose names are synonymous with the industrial revolution, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, held opposing views on that issue.

Stephenson, a steam engineer, locomotive inventor and creator of the world’s first railway line, believed an operating engineer should be intelligent, literate, well educated and highly trained in physics and mechanics. Brunel, designer of the S.S. Great Eastern as well as several of the world’s great civil engineering projects, believed in the employment of illiterate men to operate his engines. He thought that a mind uncluttered with the minutia of a classical education left more capacity to acquire the knowledge he considered relevant.

The century and a half since Brunel last hired an engineer has proven that the truth lies somewhat closer to the position held by Stephenson. The best marine engineers are produced by training men and women who already possess a solid foundation of intellectual curiosity and the drive to succeed in a very challenging career.

Until very recently it was possible, and even common, for an intelligent and highly motivated individual to progress from wiper (the engine room deckhand) through the hawespipe to unlimited chief engineer without spending a day in a classroom devoted to marine engineering subjects. Licensing required extended periods at sea while performing engine room duties under the direct and often penetrating observation of experienced marine engineers. That training could be thorough and it eliminated most of those we now describe as “backpackers.” Those days are rapidly receding into the mists of pre-STCW history.

Because the impact of a marine accident is so much greater now – both in monetary costs and environmental damage – on-the-job training (OJT) is no longer an option for those seeking a career at sea whether on a pristine white yacht, or Masefield’s “dirty British coaster.”

With OJT no longer an option, and if the maritime college route is deemed impractical, what’s a modern hawespiper to do? Pardon the dueling clichés but the options are very limited – swallow the anchor or bite the bullet. Find another type of employment or accept the fact that formal training is now part of a marine engineer’s toolkit. Employment opportunities are directly related to the level of certification and the yacht’s manning certificate. In the race for bigger boats, bigger certificates and even bigger paychecks it’s easy to forget that everything depends on the underlying skills and knowledge a competent engineer must bring on board.

All too often we read letters in yachting publications and online discussions about training and certification that imply many engineers feel they are captive to a system that demands ever more training yet does not provide for training opportunities. This is true and is a fact that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Does this mean that to obtain the training required to advance it will be necessary to leave current employment? Probably. Unless you work for an enlightened owner or are willing to convert vacation time to an investment in your professional future, you might not progress very far or very quickly.

Working on a yacht offers wonderful experiences but it also demands a great deal of flexibility by those who wish to make it a profession. The licensing structure created for yacht engineers promises great rewards, but it also commands a degree of sacrifice many are unwilling to make. To Stephenson and Brunel’s stipulations, we might add wisdom and fortitude…the wisdom to make good career choices and the strength to see them through.