The future of professional engineers: training and mentoring

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. Engineering firms have a number of different training programs, formal, and informal mentoring programs for new talent.

By CFE Media July 25, 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 training programs does your firm have for younger staff and new hires?

Ferreira: Our company supports attending classes and seminars for the purpose of attaining continuing education credits necessary to maintain professional engineer licensure. We have recently offered several targeted training programs, taught by our in-house subject matter experts, to increase our bench strength in areas we are targeting for growth.

Calabro: Each new employee at Burns & McDonnell participates in a number of general training classes intended to provide them with understanding of corporate culture, ethics, safety, and career opportunities. Additionally, each department has industry-specific training.

My department typically offers at least one training session each week. Some courses are taught by vendors or other external parties, but most are taught by engineers in the department. Some classes are stand-alone, while many are taught as part of a multicourse series on a particular topic. More than half of the courses offered to my department in the last year were technical in nature, but a number covered other relevant topics, such as proposal writing, industry basics, project-management tools, legal issues, and presentation skills.

Harris: We established Stanley Consultants University several years ago to bring member education and development to the forefront. It serves as the umbrella for all education, training, and development. The university creates and promotes learning and development opportunities to enhance the skills and business acumen of our employees. It has four distinct programs:

1. Training programs—courses, recommended reading, and training related to improving business and technical skills and performance.

2. Member development—one-on-one coaching, career guidance, and performance management.

3. Leadership Stanley—prepares the bench strength of leaders for management responsibilities.

4. Client and partner knowledge-sharing program—strengthens our relationships and understanding of client needs through webinars, technical papers and presentations, panel discussions, and onsite courses. Nearly 100% of our employees take advantage of our Stanley Consultants University programs.

Parsley: Both technical and professional practices training is provided through external vendors and institutions, along with internal lunch-and-learn events, one-on-one mentoring, technical videos, and quiz bowls. We have an internally branded Professional Practices training framework that follows an entry-engineer path as well as a management track.

Meyer: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has many internal and external training resources. Internally, we hold lunch-and-learn events on a regular basis, which are given by our own senior staff or by qualified outside vendors. We also support graduate school, achieving an industry certification or professional engineering licensure, and other education or accreditation paths. We offer professional growth through formal training in business-related items, such as project management and the project management professional (PMP) exam. We also have created the Developing Professionals Network (DPN). The DPN is a program for emerging professionals with 10 or fewer years in their career that engages them in activities within the company and community focusing on professional development, networking, and volunteerism.

Koffel: We encourage our younger staff to seek professional development. In addition, we offer monthly lunch-and-learn programs (referred to as Koffel Krackerbarrels) and a companywide annual conference.

Lacy: WSP + ccrd uses a combination of online training and webinars through our corporate intranet and one-on-one mentoring to train new hires. Depending on the candidate’s educational background, additional external training resources (both online and seminars/classes) may also be used. We augment online training by hosting in-house monthly technical roundtables and presentations that involve both younger and more experienced staff. Topics are wide-ranging and include a healthy dose of Q&A and lessons-learned forums.

CSE: If your firm has a training program, what tools do you use?

Parsley: Project assignments are tailored to facilitate a trajectory of learning opportunities, balancing breadth and depth. Additionally, internal staff prepares videos that are posted to our intranet for staff viewing when convenient. Technical and professional practices are similarly posted on our intranet.

Ferreira: We are working on expanding our Web-based training offerings and creating a Jensen Hughes University that will enable both external clients and in-house engineers to take Web-based training classes in a number of disciplines.

O’Connor: Within the firm, we use many layers of training both to develop young professionals and to sharpen and strengthen the skills of long-term staff. For instance, we have EYP/U, an accredited training program we’ve developed for training engagements. Each discipline within the firm manages their own training to develop around common tools and standards, and then to take training even deeper, each individual develops their own plan to identify specific development goals that align with their career-planning path. We are also firm believers of DiSC assessments and in using the reports and associated DiSC charts as a second language, of sorts. We’ll often host team-building sessions that include a DiSC training component, because we want our staff members to learn more about their own unique natures, tendencies, and manners in which they are perceived by others with similar or contrasting styles.

Lacy: As part of the WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff family, we have access to a wide variety of online content in our online university and learning portal. In addition, staff may elect to participate in a shared learning program hosted by third-party vendors, such as Red Vector, for additional training that may not be available internally. Much of the day-to-day training still occurs in a one-on-one setting, which continues the engineering profession’s long tradition of a mentor-mentee relationship to help advance our EITs to become professional engineers. Gaining valuable knowledge in a real-world project setting with the guidance of experienced professionals is the best way to transfer situational decision-making skills.

Calabro: Training at Burns & McDonnell is done through a combination of instructor-led classes, online learning, and on-demand options. Sometimes instructors ask students to bring laptops so that they can practice the skills and software tools that are being taught. My department also relies heavily on a lab environment for training—this allows new engineers to test out their work in a safe environment before deploying it to the field. This hands-on method has proven to be a very effective means of training!

Meyer: We use online training for many topics including safety, ethics, and human resources-related topics. We also use hands-on training, especially for jobs requiring hands-on work, such as field testing and commissioning. Young staff will be taken to a design project near completion and walked through the site to be shown what the "paper" design looks like when built.

Harris: Because everyone learns differently, we offer a wide range of tools within Stanley Consultants University. Online training courses are available through SkillSoft, Red Vector, and HR Classroom. Seminars are offered onsite, offsite, and online. Through an informal mentoring program, our employees receive on-the-job training, working alongside seasoned engineers on projects.

CSE: What areas are you finding that young professionals and recent hires could use help with training and development?

Koffel: We find that most of our young professionals are well-prepared with the basics to immediately be integrated into project teams. Some would benefit with increased writing and presentation skills.

Harris: In general, I see two areas where they could use further development. Our young professionals come to us very well-grounded in the technical fundamentals. What they often lack is first-hand experience putting these fundamentals into practice in a real-world environment. As soon as possible, we assign our new engineers to project teams so they can see the real-world application of what they learned in college. They are also often lacking in the communication skills needed in a professional environment. Internship experience is very beneficial in both of these areas.

Parsley: We find that most new hires are highly motivated to learn and aggressively look for the next challenge. So pacing opportunities can in itself be a challenge. This is critical to reinforcing in young professionals a solid technical and professional foundation to grow upon.

Meyer: The precise job-related training is a given, but most engineers lack the business skills needed to be successful. In my training, I even get down to the level of how to properly answer client emails or phone calls, how to dress for meetings versus field work, and writing skills.

Ferreira: Technical writing and presentation skills.

Lacy: While many new hires function superbly in timely task completion, many tend to be "menu-driven" in their decision-making skills; looking at only a predetermined set of possible outcomes. Our industry, however, is not multiple-choice. As good engineers, we only thrive when our staff has the ability to be creative and come up with solutions that are not always readily apparent. Decision-making skills, taking calculated risks, and solving open-ended questions are key areas we must address in our training programs.

O’Connor: We’ve previously brought onboard young professionals who have never heard of the term "soft skills" before. Our business thrives when our people are collaborating to their fullest potential, and that kind of collaboration only exists when relationships between team members are strong. Communication is at the heart of growing those trusting relationships; however, we’ve noticed that many of our engineers have limited exposure to nontechnical skills development in school. We go out of our way to highlight these skills and continuously challenge our staff to find better ways to work together.

CSE: What are some of the areas in which graduates and/or recent hires tend to show the greatest strengths?

Harris: I like the eagerness of graduates and recent hires. They get to compare and contrast their academic experience with real-world situations. Recently, a hiring manager told me he is amazed at how fearless his new graduates seem. He likes how they will jump right in and take on tasks. They are very willing to learn new things and are quick to absorb information.

Ferreira: New engineering graduates tend to be very motivated and to excel in creative thinking.

Parsley: Recent hires arrive with traits we use to characterize the future of our profession: strong collaborative skills and a willingness to think outside of the box, which may accompany the thirst for knowledge. University engineering programs are doing their job very well, in these respects. Recent grads also typically use technology extremely well to maximize effectiveness.

Lacy: Graduates tend to be extremely capable in their use of computer software and digital applications. As they are digital natives, we do not need to invest much of our training efforts on our new graduates in the area of computer competency. We, therefore, need to focus training on analytics and decision-making skills.

O’Connor: One great thing about introducing new graduates to the mix is that they typically come to us without any preconceived notions of how we’ve done things in the past, and when they have the courage to speak up and challenge what they see, we get the benefit of unbiased criticism that can lead to valuable change in the way we do things.

Meyer: Definitely technology. As a gray hair, I am always asking my young staff how to use my iPhone and iPad. They might not know the answer immediately, but they will find it instantly on the Web.

Calabro: I am constantly amazed by how quickly new employees in my group ramp up on project knowledge and technical skills. They are very flexible and able to complete tasks with minimal oversight.

CSE: Do you have a formal or informal mentoring program?

Parsley: Mentoring is informal in most cases. As younger staff members become foundationally competent, a development plan is put in place to identify where they would benefit from one-on-one mentoring in addition to project opportunities.

Calabro: We have a formal mentoring program at Burns & McDonnell. Department managers select mentors for each new employee. Sometimes mentors communicate with their protégées prior to their start date—just welcoming them to the group and starting to build a relationship. On the new hire’s first day at Burns & McDonnell, the mentor takes the new hire to lunch during orientation. After that, the mentor is responsible for helping the new hire adjust to the culture and norms of the department. Mentors also introduce them to members of the department and division management. Although the new hire has many other engineers to get technical assistance from, the mentor is supposed to make the new hire feel "at home" and familiarize the new hire with processes and procedures that he/she will use throughout his/her career.

Ferreira: Our mentoring program is a combination of both informal and formal approaches. Because much of our work is project-based, young engineers receive informal mentoring from their project managers during the course of completion of a project. Since most young engineers work on at least two to three projects simultaneously, they tend to receive mentoring from several sources. Formal mentoring happens through the supervisor-reporting structure where career development plans are established.

Meyer: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has a formal mentoring program. I have had two mentees to date. In our program, we only mentor staff in a distant office to add a layer of anonymity so that a freer discussion can occur. We talk at least once a month on whatever topic the mentee brings up. The program is elective, so an employee who signs up is showing a desire for personal growth.

Lacy: We employ both formal and informal mentoring within WSP + ccrd. While new graduates are assigned to lead engineers in their work groups that they report to directly, we also encourage new hires to seek out information and guidance from a group of senior technical advisors within the company regardless of their assignment on projects. Getting a differing perspective encourages graduates to grow and advance their decision-making skills.

Harris: We have an informal mentoring program and are taking steps to launch a formal mentoring program.

Koffel: Each new employee is assigned a mentor for the first year of employment. The mentor is someone other than their supervisor and has a job classification at least one level above the classification assigned to the new employee.

CSE: How do you assess the progress young staff members are making early in their career?

Ferreira: Our company has a structured formal annual review process that is currently the only standardized process we employ. Some supervisors also meet with their direct reports more frequently to assess progress, although this is not company policy. Informally, young staff members are constantly evaluated by how sought-after they are to work on new projects, which is a reflection of their ongoing performance.

Calabro: I know that most of my new hires want feedback. Once a new hire gets started on a project, I check in regularly with the project team to learn how things are going. I encourage all of my staff—not just the seniors—to provide feedback on a regular basis. This approach takes some pushing, as folks (especially engineers) can be hesitant to give constructive criticism. With some coaching, though, this continuous, real-time feedback can become a department norm, and all employees are regularly giving both positive and constructive feedback. In addition to real-time feedback from the project team, I sit down with new hires for a formal 90-day review. This is a great opportunity to hear how they’re adjusting, what they’re learning, and what they want from me as their supervisor and advocate. After the 90-day review, employees begin going through the annual review process at Burns & McDonnell, where we perform self-appraisals, gather feedback from team members, and have one-on-one discussions with each employee to talk about their performance and career-development plans.

O’Connor: We recently launched a new tool called Skills Growth Plans, designed to establish a 50/50 ownership plan for development. All team members assess themselves against a laundry list of skills and areas of interest that pertain first to their specific discipline, then to more firm-wide opportunities for growth. From there, they work with leaders to hone in on the areas that we agree to be the best place to focus their development as well as the areas that will help them reach their short- and long-term career goals at EYP. Setting clear expectations—for both these young professionals and for us as an organization in support of them—is so critical to making this growth path more than just an idea, but a way of operating. We’re making this a natural part of our performance-review process and as a way to reinforce our commitment to the development of our people.

Koffel: The formal assessment is through the performance-review process. All such reviews are evaluated by the president of the company, who will follow up with the respective manager to make sure the young staff member receives the appropriate types of work. Informally, every engineer in the company has worked on at least one project managed by the president of the company.

Meyer: At WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, we have an annual formal review process, but we can also do a half-year review and/or promotion for an outstanding employee. We also have established the Spot Award program to formally commend an employee for exceptional work or effort. The Spot Awards are posted on our intranet for all to read and carry a monetary prize. We also do active talent planning in which we continuously assess our high-potential talent. This allows leaders to take a vested interest and mentor, grow, and develop the future leaders of the organization.

Lacy: WSP + ccrd uses an annual evaluation program for all employees that includes both a self-evaluation and manager-evaluation process. The evaluation culminates with the development of specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-based (SMART) goals that staff members develop independently and then review with their work group manager. In addition to the annual evaluation program, we seek out opportunities throughout the year to give feedback to each employee, both positive and constructive.

Parsley: We use a performance-review system that evaluates the "what" and the "how" of their performance. The review system is based on core competencies and technical expectations that are emphasized as critical to being a successful consulting engineer.

CSE: Do younger professionals at your firm attend conferences and seminars? If so, what are their goals while at these offsite sessions?

Ferreira: Young staff members are encouraged to write technical papers and attend technical conferences, and we have a financial-incentive program to encourage authoring technical papers. While at these seminars, young engineers are encouraged to attend seminars/workshops for professional development. This allows them an opportunity to expand their professional networks and gain exposure to developments in the engineering community.

Meyer: We encourage staff to attend conferences and seminars and also to join industry associations, such as ASHRAE or the U.S. Green Building Council. The goal for attendance or membership is to use it for a reason, not just to put on your resume. Attendance at a conference should be to learn something applicable, network and meet people, pass out business cards, see what the competition is doing, and try out your developing business skills.

Parsley: Young professionals are encouraged to attend conferences and seminars. Depending on the circumstance, attendees are expected to present what they learned to their work group when they return. With greater experience, we encourage staff to present at conferences.

Harris: Yes, our younger professionals are eager to attend conferences and seminars to increase their knowledge, develop a better understanding of the industry and their discipline, learn and grow professionally, and begin to establish contacts in the industry.

Koffel: In many cases, they are presenters at the conferences. In 2016, more than half of our young professionals have committed to present at two national conferences and one international conference. In recent years, two of our interns presented at national conferences with the president on work they performed while they were interns.

Lacy: WSP + ccrd encourages and financially supports each young professional in joining an industry organization outside of the office (such as the Illuminating Engineering Society, ASHRAE, IEEE, etc.) We also encourage participation in local seminars and luncheons. In addition, employees who show an interest and initiative to attend a national conference are encouraged and supported to do so. All employees who attend educational sessions at a national conference are expected to prepare an internal article or present an in-house luncheon on the relevant information that was gained by their attendance at the conference.

CSE: When working with professionals with 5 to 10 years of experience, what does your firm focus on?

Parsley: Development plans begin when individuals start working with us, which includes identifying key milestones, such as obtaining a PE license. We find that mapping out expectations and the process to meet them helps make these goals readily obtainable.

Lacy: Being a well-rounded engineer is very important in the consulting side of our industry. Therefore, we have to take a balanced approach to training and focus on both the technical and interpersonal elements of our practice. To be the trusted advisors that our clients expect, you must back up you communications skills with real engineering knowledge.

Koffel: Both. We place significant emphasis on providing young professionals with varying experience to improve the likelihood that they will pass the FE exam. We also emphasize communication skills, such as writing and public speaking. Every engineer will make at least one presentation to their peers within the company at least once a year.

Ferreira: The primary focus for professionals with 5 to 10 years of experience is development as independent project managers. Business development and supervisory responsibilities can also come into focus, depending on the engineer.

Meyer: The PE license is a definite, followed by learning to be a good project manager. The heart of a consulting business is the careful management of every project including running the project team, financials, and client deliverables. The 5- to 10-year window is when staff should progress from being told what to work on to telling others. Client relations should be taught by a senior staff member and not left to younger staff to try to learn how in a vacuum. You get out of an employee what you put in. Train them on what is expected and you should get it.

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