How to face engineering challenges with five tips

During an engineering career, you will frequently need help from collaborators to deliver a polished product. It is important to identify resources and use them to their greatest potential

By James Hanley, PE April 18, 2024
Courtesy: James Hanley


Learning Objectives

  • Learn to leverage all your engineering, communication and management resources.
  • Focus on your team’s strengths, and help build them within the scope of the project.
  • Be accessible for your team, answering questions along the way.

Engineering project management insights

  • The engineering industry faces a 33% shortage in filling new roles, impacting firms and projects.
  • A project manager shares a story of overcoming resource constraints by leveraging engineering interns’ strengths, emphasizing communication, teamwork and resilience in facing project challenges.

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to ask for help when trying to get a project done? You are not the only one. For years, the engineering industry has experienced talent acquisition challenges. According to a Boston Consulting Group study in 2023, 33% of new engineering roles go unfulfilled. That 33% represents a shortage of 133,000 jobs across the industry in the United States.

The reasons for this shortage are diverse, but the impact can be felt at every engineering firm. The labor crisis trickles down to each of us when we work on out individual projects and deadlines. There are never enough time or enough people. What is an engineer to do?

I experienced the shortage firsthand many times over the course of my career. One story that sticks out to me happened on an ultra-high-end tech retail project. The 100% deadline was fast approaching, and my team was not in a great position to get it done. We had two weeks to go, but we were 60 labor hours short of time from an experienced engineer.

I went to my manager to discuss the situation. I had a list of the work to get done and a plan to do it. I told him we needed two senior engineers full time to make sure we got everything done. He listened and let me explain. Once I finished, he said that it looked like there was a lot to get done, but that no senior engineers were available. Instead, he offered that I take a team of seven interns and new starters to get it done.

To me, this was outrageous. I needed people who could work independently to get us over the line. Further, they had less than one year of experienced combined. I objected to the interns, but my manager said that is all there was available and that I could take it or leave it. He said that sometimes we just need to find a way to make things work with the resources we had.

Begrudgingly, I accepted his offer and then set out to make the work happen to meet our deadline. I pulled together my motley crew and we got to work.

Engineering without engineers?

These interns and grads had very little experience doing the actual engineering, however they were all strong modelers. They could reliably make the drawings look the way they needed for issuance. So, I started there. We printed out a set of plans and sat down for our first meeting. The eight of us sat at a table and I prepped them for the large amount of work that we had to do. Once they understood the urgency, we went to the plans.

We went through the drawing set, sheet by sheet, marking up everything that needed to happen. Each sheet got assigned to one of the team members and they got to work. All day, I was answering questions and giving further direction for the markups. We got to the end of the day and printed up another set. We met the following morning and performed the same exercise. They were more comfortable now, so I got fewer questions and I was able to get calculations and selections done in advance of the connect the next day.

Learn how to make lemonade out of lemons, or a good situation out of a difficult one. Courtesy: James Hanley

Learn how to make lemonade out of lemons, or a good situation out of a difficult one. Courtesy: James Hanley

We continued this cadence for the next two weeks and we were able to deliver a spectacular set. It was very hard, but the all-star team of grads and interns was exactly what the project needed.

I often think back to this experience when I am facing challenges. Five lessons I learned include:

  • Communicate your needs upward: As a project manager, managing the expectations of the team and my leadership was my responsibility. Managers cannot help you if they are not aware of your circumstances, so it is up to you to help them understand your needs. They will have a lot more flexibility if you can let them know early. Had I not gone to may managers when I did, I might not even have received my army of interns.

  • Leverage the team’s strengths: Figure out how to make the most of your team. You might not have time to teach them how to do the calculations, select equipment or coordinate with the other trades. Spend time with them to figure what their skills and weaknesses are. Lean into the team strengths and you will be able to make the most out of your resources.

  • Get on their level: As a leader, you need to communicate with the team in a way that resonates with them. When you are working with interns, use straightforward language and avoid using jargon if possible. Ask confirming questions. Set the tone by outlining the circumstances and how you are going to tackle them. Let your team know that no questions are bad questions and not to hesitate if they run into roadblocks. Be available to answer questions 100% of the time without any judgment. This will give your team the confidence that you are approachable and there to help.

  • Actively listen: For your team to be comfortable coming to you with questions, you need to signal to them that this behavior is encouraged. The easiest way to do this is by active listening. When they are speaking with you, make them feel like they are the only one in the room. Harvard Business School lists active listening as the No. 1 skill on their eight communication techniques engineering leaders need to succeed. Harvard highlights giving engineers your undivided attention and using open body language as two ways to improve your active listening.

  • Be resilient: Sometimes things will not go your way. People will leave jobs, clients will change direction and existing conditions will not work with design. None of these setbacks changes the mission. It is important to not let that get in the way of progress. Remember your objective and keep pushing toward it. When in doubt, zoom out to see the bigger picture.

Author Bio: James Hanley, PE, CBRE, is a consulting engineering veteran who believes that communication can unlock more value for all engineers and engineering firms.