Successful engineering in the 21st century

It was once both necessary and sufficient to be technically competent; now it is only necessary.


When young engineers begin their careers, they should realize that their education and skill-building has not ended, but is just beginning. Learning is a life-long endeavor and not just confined to school. Young engineers should develop a plan to amass a well-rounded set of skills to be successful in the future. Mid-career and veteran engineers could use some reminding, too.

While engineers need to develop their technical skills, they also need to develop a set of soft skills, business acumen, and awareness of the environment in which they practice. As more effective leaders, they can better clarify what matters to them and their businesses, so that compelling visions, goals, and strategies emerge. They must realize that they are operating in a world that is constantly growing more intricate, and they must develop the skills that will allow them to succeed.

As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. Engineers need to be comfortable with change to effectively address it, and they must develop the following three skill sets.

1. Vision and the world

Tomorrow’s engineers must be more aware of the world around them and how they have to interact with it.  To do that well, they need to:

  • Understand that leadership is an art
  • Know themselves and define their personal leadership framework
  • Lead a company that adapts to the world around it
  • Examine the changing environment, global issues, and trends
  • Interpret and apply public policy and its importance to engineering.

Spend time exploring the world beyond engineering. Read about foreign affairs, participate in your local government, or get involved in a charity.

2. Situational leadership, strategy, and systems thinking

Both the world and the engineering industry are dynamic. Tomorrow’s engineer must be well-versed on how teams work and interact with others. They must develop knowledge of organizational psychology and how it applies to everyday life. It is essential to work on situational leadership, team alignment, vision, core purpose, and core values. Observe how others carry out leadership.  Did you know that the movie 12 Angry Men is a great example of situational leadership and strategy? Learn about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for personalities.

3. Organizational leadership

Finally, engineers must be intellectually curious and continually develop their knowledge, their understanding, and their own models for professional practice. This may include master strategies for value creation, new pricing strategies, program management, alternative project delivery, and project integration. They should learn about lean thinking, sustainability, accountability measures, and human resource management.

To be effective engineers in the future, they must actively manage their careers and develop a skill set beyond technical abilities. They can no longer rely on “on-the-job training.” 

There are many ways to acquire skill sets, such as educational seminars, multi-session programs, college or university courses, advanced degrees, and in-house training programs. In addition, leadership skills and a vision of the industry can be acquired by participating in industry groups and associations, where the engineer will be exposed to other leaders and will learn from them.  By taking an active role in such groups, engineers also will be giving back to their industry.

Hennessy is CEO of Turnstone Energy Solutions, and the former chairman of the board and CEO of the Syska Hennessy Group. He is chairman emeritus of the board of directors of the New York Building Congress, chairman emeritus of the New York Building Foundation, past president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York, and 2008-2009 chair of the American Council of Engineering Companies (nationwide).

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