Comparison of first-year student conceptions of their future roles as engineers between Belgium, Ireland, and The Netherlands

Gillian Saunders-Smits*, Sofie Craps, Darren Carthy, Greet Langie

*Corresponding author for this work

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Recent research by KU Leuven showed that 33% of the engineering graduates in Flanders changed jobs in the first year, with 60% of those citing job content as a reason. Also, industry often reports that recent graduate hires lack the right skills for the job. It appears that students seem to enter the labour market less prepared both in perception and skill level. This study investigates the perceptions of first-year students on their future role and the competencies they need by developing an engineering role model on the business model of Tracey and Wiersema. The premise of the PREFER-model is that most vacancies for junior engineers fall into one of three roles: Product Leadership (i.e., focus on radical innovation), Operational Excellence (i.e., focus on process optimization), and Customer Intimacy (i.e., focus on client-tailored solutions). A survey was administered to first-year students from the three largest engineering degrees in Belgium, Ireland, and the Netherlands. A total of 197 students in Belgium (KU Leuven – Engineering Technology), 89 students in Ireland (TU Dublin – Engineering), and 372 students in the Netherlands (TU Delft – Aerospace Engineering) participated. In this survey, students were also asked to express their preference for three fictional job vacancies reflecting the three different roles. The results showed that first-year students do not have a clear view of the future and have an idealized perception of the engineering profession centred around the Product Leadership role. Students were also found to overestimate their level of preparedness when it comes to their mastery of competencies. It is suggested that having a discerning professional roles model as well as instruments that allow students to assess their role alignment and associated role competencies will help mitigate these issues.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • employability
  • first-year students
  • Professional skills
  • student perception
  • survey


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