Mentoring engineers: myths, motivations, and models

As the world squeezes down staff sizes, enlarges requirements for billable hours, and we spend more work days than not constantly behind one project or another, there seems to be no room for our own curiosity within our fields.

By Amy K. Smith, Ph.D., Training Manager, PSAV Presentation Services, Schaumburg, Ill. February 1, 2008

In this article: Mentoring survey results Seven keys to being a mentor Seven keys to being a mentee References Web extra

As the world squeezes down staff sizes, enlarges requirements for billable hours, and we spend more work days than not constantly behind one project or another, there seems to be no room for our own curiosity within our fields. Gone are the days where we had time to thoroughly investigate a topic about which we wondered, spend time building researched arguments for the right thing to do, or just stayed up on our professional reading for our own professional development.

Who has time for mentoring?

This is the first major myth of professional mentoring: There’s just not enough time for it. Perhaps because so many people misconstrue what mentoring is, there is a lack of it and, among the mentoring programs and efforts that do exist, experiences can be frustrating or faulty at best. And in a world where time is money, mentoring is expensive and costly.

After all, whom would we bill for the time spent mentoring? There’s the second myth: Mentoring is expensive. In fact, when we juxtapose time and cost, studies indicate that a 1% increase in employees’ productivity impacts the bottom line by 3% in profitability (Mossop, 2008). Examining that ratio in light of the cost of other professional education venues, such as conferences and seminars, which can include travel time, costs, and materials, mentoring costs are dwarfed in comparison.

Other myths proffer that mentoring only can be beneficial under formal, structural guidance from a society, institution, or our own firms and businesses. False. Many mentoring programs aren’t “programs” at all. Rather, some of the most successful, enriching, and lasting mentoring examples informally span years and cross industries as one-on-one relationships.

Some believe that mentoring belongs solely to human resource professionals—it’s their jobs to set up and monitor the mentoring systems. While this does happen, this myth begs the question of who should own mentoring?

You should own mentoring. Great mentors are not born, they are made, crafted from a deep passion for and knowledge of their fields and a desire to share. But that’s not all. Some believe that great mentors only come with extensive experience. Again, not true. Some great mentors are the young engineers who provide great questions. These questions become the foundation for learning on both sides of the relationship; mentors and mentees are the ones who can see situations through a different lens and ask why.

Mentoring is not an activity for only sages with years of experience, free time, or on the crag of their careers waiting to jump to what’s next. Simply defined, mentoring is the transfer of knowledge and experience to an immediate need or struggle to enhance skills, gain understanding, or change behavior. Mentoring feeds the basic human need of belonging to something larger than ourselves, ascribing ourselves to the big-picture purpose of our engineering field.

Making contact

In adult learning, it’s human nature to learn when we have an immediate need or a vested interest, such as an issue on a project we don’t know how to tackle (Hoare, 2006). Sure these needs and interests can be satisfied by reading and researching. But more often than not, the need is satisfied from conversation and consultation first.

This is where mentoring comes in. It’s the established relationship that solves our issue because as people we inherentlylisten to our mentor. Ultimately, mentoring is about the thinking and decision-making in our fields. This cannot be gleaned from a book or a seminar. It comes from good old human contact. Mentoring works because there is built-in accountability—neither person wants to disappoint the other, so both come to the table with an emotional investment.

With the increase in average worker age, delayed retirement, aggressive recruiting efforts in business, and a stretched talent pool of young engineers, leaders are looking to mentoring as one piece of a strategic plan in recruiting, retaining, and developing the next generation of proteges (Holloway, 2001). So shouldn’t engineering firms do the same?

Younger employees value the quality of projects given to them and the quality of the work environment far more than previous generations (Durkin, 2007). They are quicker to become disenchanted with taxing demands that require them to lean on skills managers believe they have, but they really don’t. These younger workers demand more supportive business environments and collaborative work efforts.

Research shows that 28% to 33% of young professionals leave a new job within the first nine months due to an unwelcoming, non-cooperative work environment. Studies show that positive mentoring programs and relationships increase productivity, employee retention, and improve the work environment (Benabou, C. and Benabou, R., 2000).

Mentoring models

There are many types of mentoring systems that work, and it is possible for firms of any size to adopt one that is feasible for them. All mentoring systems can beclassified in two ways: internal versus external, and formal versus informal. Generally, here’s how these categorizations play out:

Internal—formal: Mentoring programs are sponsored by your firm or business, and are facilitated by human resources or other leadership or management. These programs provide formal structure with time, guidelines, and expectations for its participants. Most often, a seasoned engineer works with a young engineer relatively new to the profession. Mentoring matches can be based on a variety of business needs: engineering knowledge, business skills, communication styles, goal setting, and career management.

Internal—informal: Mentoring occurs within your firm or business, and often includes informal relationships established within the company either intra- or cross-departmentally. In this form of mentoring, we seek clarification on some aspect of our jobs and we look to people from within the company as our sounding boards for guidance. Most commonly, this is seen as our direct supervisors, but it doesn’t have to be.

External—formal: Mentoring programs are sponsored by an organization, such as an engineering society, whose aim is to strengthen the society and the industry as a whole. External, formal mentoring programs are often offered by professional societies who will match an engineer to a mentor and provide suggested structure and meeting topics—IEEE is one such example.

External—informal:Mentoring occurs in the informal relationships we build due to a need or information we seek. These are friendships with other engineers from other firms, people we meet in the day-to-day work of our professions, and those who we go back to often for clarity and guidance. We are all familiar with the one mentoring relationship we had in high school or college with our teacher, professor, parent, or person who first ignited our interests in engineering.

The core of any working mentoring system, internal or external, formal or informal, is the strength of the relationship. Mentoring relationships can last a lifetime. So much depends on the individuals involved, from their personalities to their goals to what happens in their lives involving and apart from their careers.

The best mentoring relationships have two things in common: consistency and preparation. To continue to move learning forward and be successful at implementing new behaviors and attitudes, frequent contact is required. This contact, via face-to-face meetings, video conferencing, phone calls, or e-mails, should include an update from the mentee on recent progress of projects or goals that was discussed previously.

A mentor’s job always is to have two pictures in mind: the big picture of the mentee’s goal in relation to the industry as a whole, and the immediate details being implemented by the mentee. In terms of preparation, it is vital that mentees come prepared with a mental agenda and express it to the mentor. Take notes. Create action items during meetings. It’s good to ask questions, ruminate on a mentor’s advice and knowledge, and to be respectful and thankful of that person’s time. Mentors get a lot out of positive mentoring relationships—often as much as the mentees.

And here’s a novel idea: If you’re a seasoned engineer who has been reading this and entertaining the idea of becoming a mentor, let me suggest that you also consider becoming a mentee. As experienced engineers, you could benefit from finding mentors among the younger generations who can show you around the Internet, keep you abreast of new software programs, and inform you of events and conferences that were previously unknown. For those engineers staring off the cliff of retirement, think about finding a mentor who has made the jump into semi-retirement. Someone who is contributing to the field as an independent consultant, adjunct professor, or invited speaker can provide great insight into taking the next steps.

We should ask ourselves: What is my immediate challenge or need at work? The answer to this question is the focus that drives our search to finding the right fit for a mentoring relationship.


Benabou, C. and Benabou, R. 2000. Establishing a Formal Mentoring Program for Organizational Success. National Productivity Review 19(4): 1-8.

Durkin, D. 2007. How Loyalty and Employee Engagement Add Up to Corporate Profits. Chief Learning Officer 6(11): 30-34.

Hoare, C. 2006. Handbook of Adult Development and Learning. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Holloway, J.H. 2001. Research Link/The Benefits of Mentoring. Educational Leadership 58(8): 85-86.

Mossop, C. 2008. Aligning Mentoring Programs with Business Strategy: Best Practice #1 for Mentoring Program Design. HR Voice, Human Resources Management Assn. 32(3).

Web Extra An organization aimed at developing mentoring networks in engineering and science. The Service Corps of Retired Executives offers email mentoring and an online database of mentors. The U.S. Small Business Development Centers off free mentoring and an online matching system. IEEE has a network of technical professionals and an online mentoring program sponsored through The Training Connection.

Author Information

Amy Smith is training manager for PSAV Presentation Services, and received her doctorate in curriculum and instruction in adult education. She also was a professor at Kent State University and Western Oregon University.

Mentoring survey results

In November, Consulting-Specifying Engineer editors surveyed readers about their mentoring programs. Out of 580 respondents, 36% have a program, while 15% are working on one.

The results were typical, and showed that many myths are still out there. Mentoring programs aren’t time-consuming—that’s a myth, and the results agree:

• Only 16% of respondents said mentoring programs “Take too much time”

• Only 27% of companies who don’t have an mentoring program said it’s due to “Not enough time in the day.”

Seven keys to being a mentor

1. Available. Be willing to spend time, invite interaction, and willing to share.

2. Walks the talk. Earn the respect of your peers and industry through your actions and words.

3. Communicative. Listen openly, ask sound questions, and proffer advice that is respectful, not demeaning.

4. Trustworthy. Inspire trust by being available and present, and being genuinely interested in the lives and careers of your mentees.

5. Interested. Be zealously curious about your field, business, or community.

6. Humble. Have a level of humility—see mentoring as a way to give back to your field of engineering, not a way to feed your egos.

7. Educated. A good mentor is one who is always learning new things in your field, and you recognize what you can learn from your mentee.

Seven keys to being a mentee

1. Aware. Make a list of your top business and industry goals for a mentoring relationship. This provides focus.

2. Courageous. Be willing to try out new ideas, even if they seem foreign in relation to your way of thinking.

3. Inquisitive. Wonder and be willing to ask questions, conduct research, and discover new networks.

4. Studious. Be prepared to research, think, and document before, during, and after meetings with your mentor.

5. Honest. As a good mentee, you have to be honest and open in defining your needs, expectations, and current situation with your mentor.

6. Responsible. You must be able to accept responsibility for your career, how it grows, and your active role in that growth.

7. Open minded. Be able to accept constructive criticism and really think about its implications for your advancement toward goals.