The first time Steve Garnett (pictured alongside on the left) set foot on the campus of Southern Cross University on the Gold Coast it was for his own graduation day. He had completed an entire Master of Engineering Management program from Mackay, 1000 kilometres north, where he works for Siemens as Operations Manager for Rolling Stock.
Two years earlier Garnett had attended an internal Siemens course on project management. He found himself amongst highly experienced engineers from different specialisations. One was discussing an upcoming MBA with some excitement, and it struck Garnett that his career was at a perfect stage for a boost. His past two decades of work experience, including several years in Britain’s Royal Air Force, had prepared him well for many challenges, but he knew he could always do better.
“In my early career in the Air Force I had some great mentors, guys who’d been in the industry for over 30 years,” he says. “They always said I should take every opportunity I could for further education because you just can’t put a price on knowledge. Even though I was 18 at the time and I thought I knew everything, that's one lesson I heard loud and clear.”
He began researching courses. Online study was vital as his full-time job and family were based in Mackay. That’s how he came across the Southern Cross University (SCU) Master of Engineering Management program, offered entirely online in a highly collaborative and collegial environment.
Dr Ken Doust, (pictured top right) Senior Lecturer at SCU’s School of Environment, Science & Engineering and Co-ordinator of the Engineering Management Program, says the collegial, shared environment of the online course is actually one of its greatest strengths.
“People doing the course are not simply sitting there, listening to lectures,” Doust says. “They communicate with each other and relate their own personal and professional experiences. The average age of our current 124 students in the course is 40. At least half of them would come from an industry background. They have a lot of valuable experience and are mid-career in engineering, and they would like their career to move in new, exciting directions.”
The students, the academic says, are spread around Australia. Thanks to the course’s online nature, studies are not interrupted when a student is transferred, or has to travel briefly, for work. But most importantly, the broad and varied nature of the students and their work means they have a mass of valuable knowledge to share.
“The students interact and relate in some depth and with great quality in discussions,” Doust says. “It actually creates a much higher level of discussion than you get in a classroom, because typically in a classroom most students come from similar backgrounds - perhaps they have all come straight from an undergraduate course so have less experience. But in this situation, one of the most powerful parts of this course is the discussion that goes on and the learning students take away from that.”
Another benefit for those already working in the engineering field is that all segments of the course are compressed into six to seven-week periods, rather than the usual 13-week terms (the entire degree is typically completed in 16 months). This also allows for a rolling ‘carousel’ system, meaning new students can join the course six times a year.
“That works nicely, because sometimes you find a student comes in who may be a bit unsure of how everything works,” Doust says. “Other students introduce themselves and talk them through things. They help each other out a lot.”
What did Garnett think about the online degree, which included 15 to 25 hours of study each week including weekly, interactive webinars with special guests from industry? It has offered him a deeper appreciation of the impact that he can have in his daily work, he says.
“It opened my eyes to various fields of knowledge, such as stakeholder engagement and how important that is to the success of a project,” Garnett says. “In the past, I'd take that for granted. We talked to people, but do they really know what we’re talking about, and are we being specific in what we’re discussing?”
“Also, ‘sustainability’ is one of the buzz words of the moment, but do we really know what it means? The course opened my eyes to our various responsibilities around sustainability.”
Finally, Garnett says, his thesis was based on the training and development of a team. This deeper study offered him enormously valuable insight into the power of great people-management.
“I'm a people manager, so I thought that was quite important to study,” he says. “It was a real eye-opener in terms of how can we increase the motivation of a team and improve employee engagement. I think the entire course has made a big impact on my career.”
The Master of Engineering Management program, Doust says, is ultimately a course about making good decisions around engineering management. The content is always changing and updating as fresh knowledge emerges around various fields such as sustainability, asset management, people management, stakeholder engagement, project management and much more.
“Our aim is to give students the skills to not only make excellent choices, but to do so while engaging with people in various disciplines,” Doust says. “We’re giving students the tools and knowledge to justify their decisions in a complex and rapidly changing world.”