Mentor tomorrow’s engineers—and possibly your future boss

Set aside time to listen to the wisdom of our young engineers.


Brian P. Martin is PDX electrical discipline manager at CH2M Hill. Courtesy: CH2M HillA common gripe that I hear from senior engineers is that today’s generation feels entitled, lacks critical thinking skills, and does not take the time necessary to perform tasks. I hear that this is the result of the millennial generation constantly being distracted, whether by e-mail, texts, instant messaging, or some other form of electronic communication.

The sad truth is that it is pretty common for one generation to think that the generation following in their footsteps is somehow less skilled, less qualified, and, in general, less capable. I disagree with this assessment and instead ask, “What are you doing to mentor and develop junior engineers?” After all, at some point, one of them will most likely be your boss.

When many of us started our careers, e-mail and cell phone communication did not exist. You received phone calls at your desk, occasionally someone would drop by your desk for help, and if you needed mentoring from a senior engineer, you sat down at his or her desk and talked. In today’s office environment, all of us suffer from a near constant barrage of e-mail, pop-up chat messages, and phone calls. The same thing applies to engineers starting their career, so of course they seem distracted and unable to concentrate. Likewise, when they want to work with senior staff members, many of us are too preoccupied with e-mail or other responsibilities to mentor.

How fair is it then to dismiss the millennial generation without taking a long, hard look in the mirror? Before dismissing the next generation, important questions to ask are:

  • Am I making myself available?
  • Am I actively mentoring?
  • Are we a distraction, sending a barrage of e-mail and requests, thus preventing others from concentrating?
  • If the newer engineers have weaknesses, what are we doing to address them?
  • Have I taken the time to try to see the world from their perspective?

In our office, some of the best and brightest engineers are younger than 30. However, many of them have had little opportunity to research or present technical topics in front of a group. This is a clear weakness and impacts their future ability to meet clients and give solid technical presentations. Recognizing that we needed to give them opportunities to develop, we set up a junior engineers’ meeting every month. This forum is run by the junior engineers; senior engineers and managers are not allowed. A new person organizes the meeting each month, sets the agenda, and presents a technical topic.  While certainly not perfect, this is one example of the type of action that can be taken to mitigate a known deficit.

Recently, writer and producer Jon Lovett was the commencement speaker at Pitzer College and spoke of the wisdom (and sometimes lack of wisdom) of youth. “There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes; because you don't care how it's been done before; because you're sharp and creative; because there is another way, a better way,” Lovett said. “But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong, because you're 23, and you should shut up and listen to somebody who's been around the block.”

That quote is from 2013, but it just as easily could be from 1970. Technology is simply moving too fast for any of us to stop learning or adapting, or to become set in our ways. The engineers graduating today are the generation that will lead the way to further adoption of advanced modeling, building information modeling (BIM), and other technologies not yet known. Listening to the ideas seen from a “fresh set of eyes,” even if occasionally naïve, may well be the senior engineers’ best way to stay relevant and up-to-date. I’m sure we all have worked with a senior engineer in the past who refused to learn to use a computer. How many of them do you see today?

Brian P. Martin is PDX electrical discipline manager at CH2M Hill. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.

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