Research Plan & Methodology

Sample Frame

The focus of this project are individuals trained in engineering who were living in Alberta in 2007 and 2008. This time and location reflect a very specific context. Alberta, a resource dependent province that is rich in energy reserves, was in a stage of very rapid economic growth. The unemployment rate in Alberta in 2007 (when the data collection took place) was 3.5%, the lowest in Canada (Human Resources Development Canada ). Among professional occupations in natural and applied sciences, the 12 month moving average unemployment rate between April 2008 and March 2009 was 1.3% (Government of Alberta Employment and Immigration 2009). This high demand for engineering talent enabled me to expect that trained engineers who were no longer in engineering had left for reasons other than a lack of employment opportunities.

Mixed Methods

Data collected from multiple sources were analyzed for this project in an attempt to gain a more holistic understanding of the profession and the experience of professionals. The two predominant forms of data were materials produced by engineering aligned organizations (APEGGA, CEA, Alumni Association at University of Alberta, and the Schulich School of Engineering) and interviews with individuals trained in engineering.

Analysis of Engineering Texts

Materials published by APEGGA, CEA, the engineering alumni association at the University of Alberta, and the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary from 2007 and 2008 provided important insights into the context and professional norms of the field. The textual materials were first examined for who was presented in images and how they were presented. Were males and females both represented?  Were people of color and Caucasians imaged?  In what kinds of attire were individuals shown (e.g., business wear, scientific lab coats, field work clothes)? What roles were they enacting (e.g., designer, scientist, spouse)? Did these roles vary by who was shown? These observations were tallied and became quantitative data.

The second, and more critical, aspect of the textual analysis was a qualitative component which examined the themes, norms and values presented. Every text was read closely, with attention to the metaphors and ideals being presented and how these ideals were used – to sell products, to recruit employees, to profile “success stories”.

The texts analyzed for this study were not understood as representing the reality of engineering, but as reflecting dominant values in profession at the time of the study.  A newsletter is not going to create a professional culture, as there are other factors, but what is included and excluded, how the audience is addressed, and what values are promoted do offer important insights into the culture of engineering.

Individual Interviews

The primary source of data for the project were in-depth qualitative interviews conducted with 36 individuals who had been trained as engineers and were living in Alberta from 2007 to 2008. The individuals who participated in this study included 18 women and 18 men. The sample was a combination of convenience and snowball within a quota.

In these semi-structured one-on-one interviews, which lasted from 45 minutes to two hours, participants shared with me the factors that had led them to study engineering, their experiences of their workplaces, their aspirations for the future, and their perceptions of success and retention in the engineering field. They also completed a short demographic survey. All interviews were recorded and transcribed.  Any identifying details (e.g., names, organization names) were stripped from transcribed records to ensure confidentiality.  While transcripts were reviewed for accuracy, detailed notes summarizing the interview and identifying key substantive and theoretical insights were recorded. Analysis was conducted using NVivo software.  Miles and Huberman's (1994) contact summaries and King's (2004) "template analysis" were used to identify key themes. 

Sample Profile

  • Interviews were conducted in the greater Edmonton and Calgary areas between September 2007 and January 2008.
  • The average age was male participants was 46; of females it was 35.
  • The vast majority (78%) of participants were married or cohabiting at the time of the interview. Another 17% identified as single. Over half (56%) of study participants had children living in their household at the time of the interview. This number was slightly (but not significantly) higher for women, with 61% having children at home compared to 50% of the men. 
  • Participants had received undergraduate engineering training in a range of areas, with the largest number being trained in civil engineering (n=11). This was followed by mechanical (n=9), chemical (n=8), and electrical engineering (n=4) (see figure 1). There were no significant gender differences between the fields in which people were trained.

  • The majority of study participants were working in engineering at the time of the interview. Thirteen of the men and eleven of the women worked in engineering-related positions, while a total of eleven participants were working outside of engineering or were students. 
  • The women had spent from zero to 23 years working in the profession, with a median of 5 years experience. The men had a higher median number of years experience (12.5). Although sizable, this difference makes sense given the older average age of the males, which in turn reflects the fact that women have only entered the field in sizable numbers in the past twenty years.

Government of Alberta Employment and Immigration. 2009. “Alberta Unemployment Rate by Occupational Group Apr 2009 to Mar 2010, 12 Month Moving Average.”
King, Nigel. 2004. “Using Templates in Thematic Analysis of Text.” Pp. 256-70 in Essential Guide to Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research, edited by C. Cassell and G. Symon,. London, England: Sage Publications.
Miles, Matthew and A. Michael Huberman. 1994. Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.