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Video calls – a new PRA comms tool

Based in Cambridge, UK, David runs Artisan Electronics, an independent business that develops, supports and implements engineering systems. He’s currently working on concepts for robotic systems. David is the former Head of Technology and Engineering at the British Antarctic Survey.

The business has an interesting sideline: David also supplies, supports and repairs pinball machines of all ages…

Prolific volunteer

David became a PRA in 2005 and five years later he extended his advisory services to candidates applying for IET Fellowship too. He was a member of the IET Engineering for a Sustainable Future Network from 2007 to 2010 and its final Chair from 2009 to 2010; has been a member of the IET Cambridge Local Network since 2008, chairing it between 2012 and 2016; and has been a member of the judging panel for the IET Innovation Awards since 2014.

Pre-COVID, David estimates that he was spending between 30 and 40 hours a month supporting the IET and its members, through a mix of face-to-face meetings, professional registration workshops, telephone calls and emails.

His prolific and sustained efforts as an IET volunteer are rooted in altruism: “I’ve had a good life in engineering, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve travelled the world and worked on many interesting and challenging projects. Looking to the future, I want to help young engineers achieve their best.”

Virtual technology

With face-to-face meetings withdrawn because of the pandemic, David turned to virtual technology to continue supporting candidates. “As a PRA I have used Zoom, Skype and candidates’ company’s own Microsoft Teams application to carry out one-to-one sessions with engineers and technicians,” said David. “I find that Microsoft Teams works best for an all-day series of meetings because it has more functionality and stability.”

David always takes into account the needs of the individual and has adapted his approach when conducting virtual PRA meetings: “Sometimes it takes a while to put candidates at their ease and very occasionally I’ve received a request for a ‘voice only’ meeting, but on the whole I’ve found that video calls work really well in my PRA role. They also provide a good way to engage with people who are on furlough or working from home.”

Each of David’s virtual PRA meetings tends to last between 20 minutes and an hour. “If it’s an initial meeting I still spend a few minutes checking that the candidate understands how the system works,” he said. “I explain the background to what they’re applying for, just as I would if we were sitting opposite each other in the same room.

“Some candidates don’t fully understand the difference between IET membership and IET professional registration through the Engineering Council. I talk to them about their academic background, work roles and experience, then endeavour to match them up with their aspiration for IEng, CEng, EngTech or ICTTech.

“Exploring and explaining all of this in a virtual setting can work well but if a candidate’s aspirations are unrealistic, as a PRA you do have to employ a certain amount of tact to point them down the right path. One thing I’ve noticed about video calls is that it’s much harder to interpret the other person’s body language than is the case with a face-to-face meeting.”

Corporate Partner workshops

The IET still organises Corporate Partner workshops, which David and a much wider pool of PRAs support, but these now involve a series of virtual meetings rather than a site visit – for example, in August David completed three days of video calls with candidates from an engineering organisation.

From a volunteer perspective, there are advantages to online corporate days, including not having to get up early and travel for several hours to a company location. But there are distinct disadvantages too. “PRA meetings in a virtual setting do tend to lead to more email contact over points of detail on applications,” said David.

“What I really miss is the opportunity to visit companies, meet staff and see something of the very wide range of industries that IET engineers and technicians work in, from sets for TV and stage shows to F35 aircraft and 5G test equipment. This used to help give me a feel for what’s happening in different areas of industry.”

Looking ahead

Amazingly, David has found that despite the COVID-related restrictions, he has been getting through roughly the same volume of IET volunteer work as he was in the days before the pandemic, both as a PRA and being involved with his LN.

That’s why in the post-COVID world, once restrictions have eased, he believes there will still be a place for virtual technology. By way of example, he cited the Cambridge LN, which has been unable to host physical lectures so has planned a series of virtual talks instead. This approach is enabling his committee to engage with a far bigger, broader audience at a lower cost.

“We’re holding our first talk in October on Zoom, with a focus on renewable energy,” he said. “We usually attract an audience of between 80 and 100 people – but we’ve already got 450 people signed up, which is amazing. If it goes well, we’ll definitely be doing more of the same.”

Similarly, when face-to-face encounters are once again permitted, David intends to continue conducting some of his PRA meetings virtually. “Video calls offer an important, additional way to communicate,” he said.

If you have a story to share about how you’ve adapted your IET volunteering, please contact the Volunteer Support Unit on volunteer@theiet.org