The future of professional engineers: talent and career preparation

Young engineers are an important resource for firms—recruiting, training, and retaining fresh talent is important for a company’s future success. Here, engineers with experience in attracting and developing new talent share advice to help their professional development while increasing their value to the company. Many professional engineers practice various methods to reach out to new, potential talent and have great industry advice.

By CFE Media July 29, 2016



Meghan Calabro, PE, Assistant Department Manager, Telecom & Network Engineering, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo.

Michael J. Ferreira, PE, Vice President Development, Jensen Hughes, Baltimore

David Harris, Senior Recruiter, Stanley Consultants, Phoenix

William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, President, Koffel Associates Inc., Columbia, Md.

Douglas Lacy, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP + ccrd | A WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff Co., Dallas

Paul Meyer, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CEM, CBCP, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City

Christopher O’Connor, Engineering Operations Manager, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Albany, N.Y.

Ron Parsley, PE, LEED AP, NCEES, Electrical Engineer, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.

CSE: What are the most positive aspects and biggest strengths of hiring millennials (Generation Y)?

Harris: Here are some comments I’ve received from hiring managers: "They are eager and will jump in." "They think more out of the box." "They like to learn new things." "They are versatile and fearless." "They aren’t as intimidated." "They are good communicators."

Parsley: Younger staff members probably have a better grip on technology than older generations, so they are able to use technology to their advantage, which can increase productivity and completeness if used properly. They’re learning Revit in school now. It isn’t just a drafting tool. Among many other options, it’s an engineering tool. Their energy is positive. Younger staff members can bring a high energy level to an environment, which can increase productivity and morale. Most have not experienced enough to cause them to be slowed by past issues on projects. Sometimes, experience can slow someone into trying to cover all angles and overthinking certain things. In this respect, younger staff members may be more creative since they lack whatever encumbrances of past experience.

Meyer: Definitely their thirst for knowledge in real time. With all of the technology available to them 24/7, they look things up on their smartphones instantly. Listen to a group of them talking casually and you hear one talk about a movie they saw and someone will pull up IMDB or Yelp on their phone and read the reviews.

Ferreira: Millennials tend to be hard-working and driven toward success. They often contribute immediately to projects and come up with innovative solutions to help our clients and their project teams. We’ve found that most engineering programs are starting to place more of a focus on working in project teams than solely rote learning of technical facts and procedures. The project team context is more relevant to the work environment at Jensen Hughes.

Lacy: Energy! When you find the right graduates that fit your firm’s culture, they bring an enthusiasm to your company that you can’t live without.

CSE: What weaknesses do millennials (Generation Y) demonstrate professionally?

Lacy: Younger individuals, regardless of generational label, have always struggled with knowing what they don’t know. Learning to seek out advice from more experienced individuals, rather than relying solely on digital search results, is an important skill to develop. This interpersonal interaction will help foster the ability to communicate effectively with a varied group of individuals and will help you build your analytical decision-making ability in a timelier manner.

Meyer: Writing skills and spelling! They rely on technology too much. With spell check everywhere, they tend to type without proofreading—and the autocorrect function makes for some very embarrassing mistakes. I explain to my staff members that their writing reflects on their professional knowledge and opinions. Does the report you just wrote demonstrate that? We internally perform peer reviews of client reports, which helps both the writer and reviewer to grow.

Ferreira: By far, the biggest weakness that millennials consistently demonstrate is that they often overestimate their own abilities and fail to exhibit patience in developing their engineering careers. Many millennials want to manage their own projects and attain supervisory roles well before their abilities demonstrate they are ready for these responsibilities. Another issue is that millennials often bring up "work-life balance" as being a primary driver of their motivations. They tend to be less career-first types and will work hard only up to the point where they feel they are adversely impacting their social and personal lives.

Parsley: They have less experience and knowledge to help guide them through sticky or difficult situations. Without sufficient oversight and engagement with senior staff, it may create a lack of trust. Younger staff members may pay less attention to detail and put less effort into a task than more senior members who want to make sure every item is completed thoroughly. They typically need to practice more tactful speech and learn how to word their emails more tactfully. There’s a higher likelihood that they will leave for another opportunity, which comes at the expense of long-term planning. They often have unrealistic expectations for promotion. They’re typically less motivated on tasks that they feel "aren’t them."

CSE: Describe any career outreach programs with area high school or college students your firm participates in to entice prospective engineers to the field.

Koffel: Through the University of Maryland and personal initiatives, we have participated in programs to encourage high school students to enter engineering. This ranges from presentations to being an advisor on group projects. Likewise, we have participated in programs for college students ranging from explaining what an engineering career may involve to being an evaluator for student projects.

Harris: We have regularly partnered with high school engineering teachers located near our headquarters. As part of National Engineers Week, we host a full day that includes an industry tour, an "eat and compete" engineering project activity, and small group Q&A sessions with young engineers. Our engineers and architects also make presentations to the high school students and serve as panelists when the students, in turn, present their final class project at the end of the school year. The intent is to introduce students to different disciplines via people they can relate to—engineers only slightly older than themselves. The ultimate goal is to recruit them to join Stanley Consultants after they graduate from college with an engineering degree.

Ferreira: Many of our engineers have put on programs at high schools and colleges to introduce students to the field of fire protection, which is not a well-known profession outside of the four to five schools in the U.S. that offer fire protection-related programs.

Parsley: We reach out to a variety of student organizations—ASHRAE, IEEE, National Society of Black Engineers, American Indian Science and Engineering, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers—providing information and opportunities with AEI. And we partner with local job-shadowing programs geared toward high school students.

Meyer: I do some volunteer work for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics. I am amazed when I am interviewing a team made up of only 14- and 15-year-old girls who are explaining to me the android phone apps they programmed into their robot to operate autonomously. I want to hire them by their junior year of high school. In my experience, by the time students elect an engineering degree, they are set for life. High school is the time to offer them the advice.

Lacy: Our firm (and myself personally) has been involved in the ACE Mentoring Program for more than 12 years. As part of the program, professionals from the architecture, construction, and engineering (ACE) field meet after school with high school students interested in the building industry. We expose these students to the various careers available through a project-based learning activity over the course of 16 to 24 weeks that culminates in a project presentation by the students.

CSE: If you could reach out to all the students currently in engineering school, what advice would you give them about better preparing themselves for their future careers?

Calabro: Don’t get too wrapped up in your GPA. While in college, take the time to find your passions and get involved outside of class. Learn how to work with people of varying backgrounds and opinions. School work is important, but hiring managers want to see well-rounded candidates. Sometimes, I include current staff when I interview candidates. After the interview, my most important question for the current employee is: "Would you want this candidate to work with you on your current project?"

Ferreira: Many young engineers can benefit from a technical writing course, and we’ve found that this is not encouraged as part of many engineering programs. No matter how innovative or creative the engineer’s technical solution is, this solution needs to be communicated to the client in a clear and concise manner and most often in the form of a written technical report.

Lacy: Develop perseverance. Mistakes will be made by you or by your teammates. Learning to fail gracefully is something that you should work on as an individual and as a team. Then get back up and try again! Develop patience. Patience has always been something that all young people struggle with, regardless of their demographic generation. To compound this, our culture’s fixation on instant gratification warps our expectations in life and work. Actively work to oppose this desire and learn that delayed rewards are worth your effort. Make decisions. When faced with difficult problems, don’t focus on the solutions you are given by others or constantly seek affirmation. Strive to find your own solutions that aren’t handed to you.

O’Connor: Invest time in courses, organizations, co-ops, and other opportunities that strengthen your nontechnical skills. These skills are so obvious in the new graduates who have them, and they always stand out from the crowd. We’re expecting technical aptitude to be a given, so it is truly those other things you’ve got working for you that pave the way for an opportunity here.

Harris: My recommendation would be to take and pass the FE exam and get their EIT as soon as possible. Remember to take classes in communications to develop people skills. Most engineering grads can perform the technical work, but equally as important is the ability to fit in and work successfully as part of a team. I would also stress the importance of internships. Hands-on experience provides a big advantage, not just in work experience but also in being exposed to different disciplines.

Parsley: Being well-rounded in your engineering education is just as important as learning how to solve the problems. As consultants, being able to communicate and listen effectively is how we get and keep clients. If you can’t do that, then you won’t have the chance to solve any problems. Many schools do not teach or discuss what it means to be a consulting engineering and do not stress the importance or even encourage taking the FE exam, which is necessary to have a successful career. I would also stress the importance of taking courses in CAD design, with emphasis in computers and power, and of finding opportunities to work in team settings that require presentations and speaking roles.

Meyer: Internships in your target career is No. 1. If you cannot find an internship, then do related volunteer work. I feel that internships not only help students gain knowledge, but they also help grads differentiate themselves from all of the other candidates holding the same degree. If I am reading a resume that says "I took Physics 101" and has nothing else to offer, it gets dropped.

CSE: Think back to when you were just starting out on your career: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your past self about how to put your best foot forward and prepare yourself for success?

Meyer: I was the first in my family to get a college degree, so I had no support system at home to explain what I was going to need. I should have relied on my college professors, many of whom were retired industry engineers, for advice. Once hired at my first job, I had an excellent boss who guided me in career growth and sent me to management-skills classes. As a part-time college professor, I try to prepare my students, all of whom are seniors, for what to expect in the industry. For example, I urge my students to take the LEED Green Associate exam to differentiate themselves from their peers. Most construction managers dislike LEED paperwork, so take on the task and show initiative and drive.

Calabro: Regardless of what task you’re assigned—no matter how big or how small—be sure to knock it out of the park. Take some time each day to step back and understand how your task fits into the bigger picture. Talk with colleagues about the structure of the project. Learn about the drivers in your industry. Understand the major pain points of your client. Having this understanding will help give you perspective and give greater meaning to the sometimes monotonous tasks. This understanding will also help you to think about ways you can improve processes or grow additional work for your company.

Ferreira: I would tell myself to focus on developing the best technical skills possible and contribute as much as possible to project teams. I would also tell myself to have patience in attaining new responsibilities and positions, as hard work always pays off. Finally, I would tell myself to participate as little as possible in the chattering "grapevine" talk about what is going on in the company, as this is often counterproductive to the goals you are trying to achieve.

Harris: Upon graduation, I felt my education had taught me everything. Of course, this wasn’t the case. I worked in an environment where most of my colleagues did not have a degree. Therefore, I felt I had to be right all of the time. If I could go back, I would tell myself that it’s okay to be wrong: Nobody is always right. I would also tell myself to listen more and talk less—so I could see the whole picture and not just my perception of it.

Parsley: Listen closely to your peers and senior engineers and designers because there are endless things to learn. Just because you don’t think you need to know them now does not mean you should not listen, because you will certainly need to know them at some point. Ask more questions to your peers and senior engineers, and this means in every discipline. There is so much to learn if you ask. Each engineer or designer has different experiences and each can help you in different ways. Find a senior consultant and grab onto that person. It will be easy to pick out the right one, it’s the person everyone else is going to. And there’s a reason:

That person is likely a wealth of knowledge and experience and can help inform what to do and what not to do (knowing what not to do can often be the starting point for deciding what you should do). Once you get comfortable asking others for their opinions and advice, and sharing your own, you start forming teams and your knowledge grows exponentially.

O’Connor: I see new graduates and young professionals doing really impressive things in our company and our communities. It takes courage to step up when you’re still finding your own way as a professional, but that first step is so important. Expect resistance and setbacks—not everyone you engage will be open-minded, but don’t let that deter you. The most important thing you can do is make thoughtful suggestions. That may sound obvious, but many ideas are shot down because the originator didn’t anticipate how all stakeholders will be impacted, and as a result, pitched an idea that was DOA. Do the legwork to capture the big picture and drum up support, then go for it.

Lacy: Listen more and talk less. Being patient and striving to absorb information is important in developing wisdom and not just knowledge.

Author Bio: Since its founding in 2010, CFE Media and Technology has provided engineers in manufacturing, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing control systems with the knowledge they need to improve their operational efficiency. CFE delivers the right information at the right time around the world through a variety of platforms.