June 19, 2013
What's on the Minds of Young Engineers?We picked the brains of the 2012 Young Engineers of the Year to see what matters most to them. Young Engineer of the Year. The PEs and EIs/EITs age 35 and younger who earn the title bring talent, motivation, and energy to the field.
This is the fifth year that PE has highlighted the young engineers. This time, we've asked each engineer about the professional issues important to him or her. While some of their comments will sound familiar, echoing themes common in the profession, others may come as a surprise.
In 2006, NSPE added a statement to its Code of Ethics noting the professional engineer's duty to protect the environment by adhering to the principles of sustainable development, defined as "the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development."
James Natarelli, P.E., a New York civil and environmental project engineer, says that in just the 10 years he's been active in the industry, he's seen sustainability transition from a client luxury to a concept so prevalent that it will soon be a requirement for all future development.
As Kansas transportation engineer Jeff Gardner, P.E., explains, the more-efficient selection and use of materials is just another way engineers can perform the fundamental task they are taught: "improve life for everybody."
Because engineers' projects such as bridges, roads, and water plants will stand for decades ("my bridge will be there 100 years later," he says), they're gifts to the future and need to be created with sensitivity to the environment.
Kentucky young engineer Justin Verst, P.E., also brings up the durability of projects. However, he points out that 20, 50, or 100 years may seem like a long time, but they're actually pretty short if we consider the way society uses resources. For instance, if we use all the oil while we have it, he says, in 100 years we'll be out of oil.
As he's been raising his four kids (he welcomed triplets to his family in 2008), the director of design and quality assurance has spent more time thinking about sustainability and the future he's creating for them.
While Natarelli believes the importance of sustainable design is widely understood, he notes that cost is a common impediment. If companies could make green products more affordable, he says, then implementation would become more standard. A shared understanding by developers, contractors, and public works officials that any project regardless of cost, size, or public profile represents an opportunity to contribute to sustainable design objectives would also help, according to the PE.
Verst also highlights the need for all parties involved in a project to value the issue. "A lot of developers and builders grew up in a different generation," he says. "You design something that will last 20 or 30 years, and it's someone else's problem down the road. It's a tough game trying to do things [the way] you feel is the right way when someone else controls the contract."
He believes that regulations are key to encourage developers to do what is best for the environment or community versus focusing solely on economics. Engineers can play an important part in helping lawmakers create those, he notes.
Licensure and Ethics
A couple of the young engineers also brought up industry's exemption from licensure. Says Gardner, "Is an airplane paramount to our safety? Yes. Should we have a licensed engineer or someone responsible for it? I think that makes sense."
Peter Pisasale, P.E., the NSPE young engineer who has worked for more than a decade at Raytheon Co., says he doesn't believe the value of the PE is appreciated at companies where the industrial exemption applies. Out of a campus of about 700 engineers, there are no more than 10 or 20 PEs at Raytheon, he says. "That's not a good percentage."
The operations value stream leader is on a "personal crusade" to convince other engineers to pursue licensure. Earning a PE not only can help those in an exempted industry stand out, he says, but also increase job opportunities if they move to nonexempted industries.
Two of the young engineer winners came down on the side of increasing education requirements for licensure. Gardner says he supports an increase in the number of credit hours required for an engineering bachelor's. He compares engineering to accounting. Most states require at least 150 semester hours of college coursework in accounting to become a CPA, while college engineering programs are around 128 hours. "Although accountants, as proven by Enron, can do a lot of damage to a lot of people," he says, "when mistakes are made in engineering, it's life and death." The high stakes encourage engineers to hold themselves to high standards, he notes.
Stephanie Brown, P.E., a civil project engineer in Mississippi, advocates for the requirement of a master's degree for licensure, even though she admits "this is ironic considering I don't have a master's." But the self-proclaimed "old school thinker" believes the change would be beneficial because of the amount of knowledge required in engineering. She points to the number of different specialties within just civil engineering and the broad range of material that has to be covered in an undergraduate engineering program.
In addition, requiring a master's degree would help enhance the reputation of professional engineers, Brown says. "If [a master's] had been necessary to obtain my PE, I would've done it."
But another young engineer takes the polar opposite view. Adam Butts, E.I., an Oregon water and wastewater engineer, would like the profession to bring in more talented people by allowing those who have practical experience but not a four-year degree to work as engineering interns if they pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination.
According to Butts, the time he spends in the field has been the most beneficial in teaching him about engineering and design. "By limiting the profession to college graduates," Butts says, "we are leaving out a large segment of the population that has a specialized knowledge that only comes through hands-on experience."
Ethics, a key component of professional engineering practice, was another issue emphasized by the YEs. "Ethics is really the most important thing for us as protectors of the public to have," says Gardner. He believes it should be a mandatory class in the undergraduate engineering curriculum.
Benjamin Malcolm, P.E., a Nebraska system protection engineer in the electric utility industry, says throughout his career he has "battled with achieving business goals while still remaining true to professional engineering ethics." Peer discussions at conferences or meetings of professional societies like NSPE have helped build a foundation for decision making, he says.
Mentoring and the Generation Gap
Explains Mandee Brandt, P.E., senior drainage engineer in Florida, younger engineers may otherwise miss out on important design-related information that older engineers have learned from experience.
Pisasale also noted the importance of the senior perspective to junior employees. "We hate to have to learn it the hard way," he says.
Or, as Gardner puts it, "everywhere I've worked in my career, if I wanted to learn something, I found 'the old guy' and started to deprogram him. It takes a little bit of extra effort, it's not the fastest way to get a project done, but sometimes those life lessons you learn, or those history lessons, are invaluable to your career."
Ohio's Rowland stresses the need for older engineers to "push us now, while they're still there," letting young engineers tackle big problems so they can learn from the older engineers instead of having to figure out solutions without their assistance when they're gone.
But a couple of the young engineers pointed to the possibility of conflict arising between the generations. Brown describes some younger engineers' lack of appreciation for older engineers' experience and expertise, stemming from reliance on technology. "I think the cost [of technological gadgets] has been a [decreased] appreciation of the older generation that knows this number sounds right because of their expertise," she says.
The PE sees some older engineers dismissed by younger ones because they can't operate the devices. And, on the flip side, she adds, the innovative ideas from the younger generation may be ignored because the more experienced engineers are set in their ways.
But younger and older engineers can learn a lot from each other. For instance, Hawaii project engineer Timothy Lum Yee, P.E., notes that he learns discipline from older engineers, observing their strong work ethic and "commitment to do the right thing."
Brett Runge, P.E., a South Dakota project engineer, is grateful for more-experienced engineers who take the time to teach and share their experiences, and he emphasizes the need for collaboration between the generations. "We need this important mentorship," he says. "Young engineers come with new ideas and technology that may annoy older engineers, but that's how this world evolves. Older engineers and younger engineers need each other to be the best."
Senior Staff Writer Eva Kaplan-Leiserson, Staff Writer Matthew McLaughlin, and Assistant Editor Sam Brase contributed to this article.
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