Community engagement: why qualifications and experience matter

November 14th, 2017

I recently attended the Temple Symposium on Community Engagement in Infrastructure. The topic of formal qualifications and experience levels of engagement practitioners received quite a lot of discussion. It would be fair to say that most of the guest speakers (who commented on this topic) were not in favour of engagement-specific formal qualifications.

A chap from one of the large construction companies asked a very pertinent question to the effect of “you say trust me that I will place the right consultant/engagement practitioner on your project, and don’t be too narrow in your requirements regarding qualifications or experience. But that person will have temporary custody of our project and our company’s reputation. Isn’t that risky/a big leap of faith for us to ‘just trust you’ to get it right?”. The answers he got seemed (to me) to be more along the lines of “we’ve got it right before, if we don’t get it right this time then don’t hire that person again”. Cold comfort for the project that ends up unraveling due to the practitioner’s inexperience or lack of knowledge!

Resistance to formal qualifications

So why is there so much resistance to the idea of formal qualifications in Community and Stakeholder Engagement? As our industry is going through such a rapid growth phase, wouldn’t it make sense as the next step in the advancement of the profession to establish some good quality tertiary level qualifications?

The arguments on the day seemed to centre around the idea that good engagement practitioners possess a range of skills, and no one skill set guarantees a ‘perfect’ practitioner. There was concern that a degree based qualification would be more ‘transaction’ and ‘technique’ focused rather than outcome focused. That it would drive less innovation and creativity. Current practitioners come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some with tertiary qualifications in other disciplines, some without, and as this was seen as a strength there was reluctance to change the status quo.

Making the case for formal qualifications

I’m going to be a bit old fashioned here and say that I believe tertiary education offers significant advantages. It teaches you to think, and to approach problems in particular ways, to explore concepts within broader frameworks and theories, and more. It offers some distinct advantages in ensuring consistent application of standards, and practice that has strong foundations in key areas of theory and principles/core values. Ofcourse this is not exclusively related to people with tertiary qualifications. But it is fair to say that there is a higher percentage chance that someone with tertiary qualifications has those capabilities, knowledge base and skills.

A degree doesn’t make you an expert. Thank goodness nobody asked me to design a bridge after I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. My degree gave me the framework for learning more about civil engineering, and the ability to apply that knowledge to on the job training (had to chosen to pursue that career option). Without that degree I would not have been quite as able to obtain that additional knowledge or apply that knowledge on the job.

(You  may be interested to read this other blog post I wrote earlier this year: The death of Expertise)

What do other related professions do?

There are parallels in some related professions. For example, there are people who are great at marketing, and have lots of experience and expertise in it, yet they have never done a marketing degree. Does that mean make marketing degrees unnecessary? If you do hire someone with a marketing qualification, there is a good chance they already understand the foundations of marketing, and that’s a great place to start to build some on-the-job experience. Having a PR and Communications degree has not stopped people without that degree working in PR. But having that qualification gives those people a head start in their career.

Implications for the Community Engagement Industry

The lack of a formal tertiary level course in Community Engagement has meant that PR and Marketing degrees are seen as a pathway to the Engagement profession. There are significant differences between PR/Marketing and Engagement. We need to teach those key principles of Engagement in order to adequately equip young people who want to enter this profession.

Having a degree would not lock people out of the industry if they have relevant skills and expertise. A degree in Community and Stakeholder Engagement would be great for young people who are drawn to this profession to get some good foundations of theory and practice. It would also give the people who hire engagement practitioners more comfort that a recent graduate placed on their project has a good level of knowledge and skills to draw on, despite their relative lack of experience. The degree doesn’t have to be compulsory or lock people out of the profession, it can be a means to enhance and improve overall standards right across the profession.

A regular complaint from many stakeholder engagement practitioners is that they are not ‘taken seriously’ or treated as professionals. I think formal, tertiary level qualifications can go a long way towards addressing this.

If we are to believe the pundits, professions that require more ‘people skills’ and empathy are less likely to be replaced by robots – good news for us. So we should prepare for further growth of our industry and support it with good quality training and education options.