Mentoring creates a competitive advantage

Developing and maintaining a mentoring program within an organization can help grow the bottom line.

By David Kurten PE, HDR Architecture Inc., Princeton, N.J. June 29, 2017

The higher education system in the U.S. is only producing a small fraction of the graduates needed to fill entry-level positions in the architectural engineering industry, and that number continues to decline. In 2015, only 717 students graduated from 23 architectural engineering programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET), down from a recent high of 921 graduates in 2012. The numbers are surprising, certainly, and they suggest that the architectural engineering industry will continue to seek more entry-level talent through engineering programs that are not tailored to this specific industry. The result is an industry that is becoming more self-taught every year.

Formal training programs, industry forums, and peer-reviewed journals all provide young professionals with a foundation of knowledge that will help them overcome the learning curve in due time. Yet these sources are no substitute for the knowledge that can be gained when a young professional works closely with an industry expert who has practical experience.

Selecting the right mentors within an organization is critical. Simply possessing the technical knowledge of a specific discipline doesn’t always guarantee effective mentoring.  Successful mentors need to have a propensity for teaching and engaging young staff. They also need to be disciplined in their approach and willing to facilitate the progression of young professionals through their firm.

Typically, mentors fall within four broad categories:

  • Career guide—counsels, promotes, and helps with long-term career development
  • Information source—serves as a technical resource
  • Friend—provides social and bureaucratic context
  • Intellectual guide—provides constructive feedback in a peer relationship.

Each type of mentor plays an important role in the development of young professionals, and each will foster a different mentoring relationship. A firm needs to evaluate the types of mentors available within the organization and select the most appropriate for a given young professional. In some cases, the young professional may select the individual through natural interaction with departmental staff. In that case, the firm may need to augment a mentoring relationship with another individual in a different category. Providing a second mentor gives the young professional well-balanced exposure.

Without support from the firm, individual mentors will struggle and inevitably become disenchanted with the process and, by extension, the firm. Companies need to encourage mentoring by ideally embedding professional development in the cultural fabric of the organization. They should provide guidance and direction to ensure consistency in the outcomes as well as a degree of flexibility that accommodates a variety of personalities and department structures. The firm also needs to adopt a long-term perspective about professional development, recognizing that the return on the investment of time and resources will not be visible in the bottom line for several years.

A successful mentoring program also relies on young professionals, themselves. The firm should seek entry-level candidates with a healthy thirst for knowledge and the industry and a clear understanding of the benefits that mentors provide. They need to be proactive and have a desire to seek out wisdom and expertise from their mentors. They also have a responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation, which will help ensure the long-term success of a mentoring program. 

Mentoring can benefit every aspect of an organization. Young professionals learn skill sets, get more visibility, feel valued, and typically have higher earnings potential. Mentors have a higher degree of job satisfaction, an increase in generational awareness in the workplace, and renewed enthusiasm—and they may even relearn skills that have atrophied. The firm benefits from the intangible effects of good morale and the real impacts to their bottom line. 

The need to mentor young professionals in the industry is becoming more urgent. Those firms that embrace mentoring holistically and create a symbiotic relationship between their practice, mentors, and young professionals will create a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace.

David Kurten is the vice president and director of engineering for HDR Architecture Inc.