Your Career Starts Here
As the latest class of engineering graduates prepares to join the work world, younger NSPE members offer career advice.
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
What Felicia Knox, E.I.T., experiences out in the field as a professional is not quite what she learned to expect during her years studying at California Polytechnic State University. “When you get on the construction site, you learn a whole different aspect of your role as an engineer,” says the 2010 civil engineering graduate. “These are real-life experiences that you can’t learn from a book.” With more than three years of experience under her belt, she is adding to her engineering knowledge and skills and studies to take the PE exam.
Across the nation, thousands of new engineering graduates will soon get their first taste of what it means to be a professional in the workplace. Like Knox, who was NSPE’s 2014 representative to DiscoverE’s New Faces of Engineering campaign, there are young engineers who are on track to obtain a PE license and are seeking guidance on how to become a part of the next generation of leaders in the profession. NSPE members—many who were named their state society’s Young Engineer of the Year in 2013—shared with PE their perspectives on what it takes to be a professional engineer and how it is essential for more seasoned engineers to mentor a new crop of engineers.
The Path to Professionalism
Ed Rodden II, E.I.T., didn’t take a typical path to licensure. He started his career right out of high school in a drafting position and educated his way up to eventually become an EIT. He didn’t just want to be any engineer, but rather a professional. “I wanted the opportunities to lead a team and be responsible for challenging projects,” says the executive director of the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers and engineering consultant.
Rodden believes that it’s important that new graduates know the amount of commitment required to become a licensed professional. “The most important thing you can do after becoming an EIT is to embrace all of the knowledge that you can from different PEs and from peers who are having different career experiences,” he says. “You also need to get involved in as many projects that the firm will allow you to be involved with.”
Rodden adds: “They also have to keep in mind that once you reach the goal of being a PE, that’s not it. You have to focus on having a mindset that you should always be learning and open to new ideas.”
NSPE realizes that the future professional engineer will need to be not only creative and innovative, but able to adapt to changes on a global scale while maintaining a commitment to the public health, safety, and welfare. The Society recently released the Engineering Body of Knowledge to provide a common ground to developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to practice as a professional engineer across engineering disciplines. The key elements of the EBOK are contained within 30 capabilities that focus on basic or foundational knowledge, technical skills, and professional practice.
It would be a mistake for young engineers not to pursue a PE license, says Greg Latreille, P.E. “It’s the benchmark of professionalism that dictates not just that you’re an engineer, but you’re an engineer capable of designing systems and structures that have a direct impact on the public health, safety, and welfare,” says the associate at BBFM Engineers Inc. in Anchorage.
Latreille cautions young engineers not to let nervous feelings about the exam influence whether or not to obtain a PE license. “The exam is just a part of the pie, and it’s a relatively small piece,” he says. “For someone who wants to really embrace what it means to be a PE, it’s important that they put themselves in a position where they are going to get the experience that is pertinent to being a PE.”
After earning his PE four years ago, Victor Herrera, P.E., soon realized how licensure can open professional doors. “When I speak to future graduates, I always emphasize the importance of becoming an EIT and making sure your employer has a licensed engineer on staff that will oversee your experience as you pursue a license,” says the manager of civil infrastructure at Atkins in Doral, Florida. “Even if you don’t feel you will ever use the stamp, the satisfaction of passing the test and being a licensed professional engineer is awesome!”
A PE license is just one step to becoming a leader in the field of engineering. Young professionals will face many challenges, says Herrera, but they must not shy away from overcoming them. “I believe in the ‘show me’ attitude,” he says. “I always took on the tough challenges and knew that after I demonstrated my abilities to deliver, recognition and trust would follow.”
Leading the Way
With a few years of professional experience under her belt, Knox is dedicated to preparing for the PE exam through an online course and practice tests. As she takes the next big step in her career, she is also focused on overcoming any challenges that may come her way and also learning what it means to be a leader. “You have to be persistent, even if that means taking a few hours of your own time to learn new programs and systems,” says the staff engineer for SHN Consulting Engineers and Geologists in Coos Bay, Oregon. “You have to be willing to work really hard.”
Becoming a leader in the field is something that can’t simply be taught from a book or in a classroom, says Rodden, other professional engineers must reach out and lead by example. “To be a good leader you need a positive attitude and good work ethics,” he says. “You also need to be patient and know what situations you can handle and the ones that you can’t. Know your limitations.” He also believes that NSPE members need to understand that the world has changed and mentors have to better understand a new generation of engineers.
Involvement in the Alaska Society of Professional Engineers and NSPE has been critical to the development of Latreille’s leadership skills. “There was a time in my career when I didn’t have a lot of experience and I wasn’t going to be in charge of a lot of projects. NSPE provided an opportunity for me to serve in a leadership role,” he recalls.
One year out of school, Latreille volunteered to serve as chair of a new task force at the local chapter level. “All of a sudden, I was in charge of this group with people who were older and had more experience, but we had specific goals that we had to accomplish,” says the former executive director of ASPE. “That was a valuable learning experience and it has continued down the line.”
He adds: “There are lots of state society presidents that are under the age of 40 and it’s because these opportunities exist. You get opportunities to lead at a time in your career when you’re more apt to follow.”
Mentoring and Coaching
After graduating and starting her career in 2002, Sarah Puffer, P.E., soon answered a calling to work with young people. With only one year of engineering under her belt, she stepped away from the field for a few years to obtain a master’s degree and to teach high school math. Yet, she soon missed the challenge of engineering and realized that she couldn’t make the [impact] that she truly wanted to make in a classroom setting. “As a teacher, you have 30 to 35 students for one hour a day for a semester,” says the lead engineer at Duke Energy in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I found that as a mentor and coach, I had a much stronger influence.”
As a member of the Professional Engineers of North Carolina, Puffer combines her engineering and academic expertise to deliver the engineering message to PENC’s student chapters as well as high school students. She tries to dispel the stereotype that engineers are just people with pocket protectors who sit in front of a computer all day. An engineering degree, she advises, is the best liberal arts degree that they can get right now and can open up vast opportunities. “An engineering degree tells [graduate] schools and employers that you have a great background in critical thinking, you can think outside of the box and solve problems,” she says. “Having an engineering degree is valuable because these skills will help you stand out in any profession.”
Puffer believes it is important for new graduates and young professionals to seek out mentors, whether the relationship is formal or informal. “There are some veteran engineers who are happy to share information; they just don’t think that anyone is interested in hearing them,” she says.
Jonathan Ziegner, P.E., is a leader in a firm with a mentoring philosophy designed to give newly minted engineers and EITs opportunities to do more than serve as worker bees. Parkhill Smith & Cooper, in Lubbock, Texas, offers leadership courses and allows young engineers to bring their fresh perspectives to various projects. “We make sure that they know the opportunities are there for them,” says the corporate associate and highway and rail team leader. “At the same time, I also advise them to not always wait for things to come to them. They should always look for what’s not being done and where they can make a positive contribution.”
Ziegner adds, “I also tell them to look to people who have gotten to leadership positions at a relatively young age and seek them out as mentors. Take an opportunity to sit down and talk with them.”
Knox agrees that her peers shouldn’t be complacent and must reach out to their supervisors for guidance. “Even if your bosses are busy,” she says, “don’t try to stay out of their way, because they are the best resources,” she says. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t try to wing it. Ask questions. It may not always be convenient for them, but they will appreciate your outreach in the long-term.”
Latreille considers himself quite fortunate to have a group of mentors and leaders at his firm who are serving as his professional role models. “If [engineering graduates] want to do well, get into a firm that has leadership you can trust and show you what it means to be a PE,” he says.
He believes that firm leaders should step up to help the younger professionals. In turn, young professionals should be proactive in seeking out mentors and coaches. “If young engineers and EITs are in a position where they don’t have confidence in the people that lead their firms, then it’s time to get into a different firm,” he advises. “That alone is going to be a big step in their professional development.”
10 Top Tips on Leadership
By Mel Lester
Leadership is a complex subject. You don’t master it by going to a seminar or reading a book. The following are examples of the very best leadership advice I’ve accumulated over 30 years as a leader and consultant.
1. Multiply your impact by investing time helping others succeed. By definition, successful leaders have successful followers. This requires the leader spending time helping others increase their skill, productivity, and effectiveness—what I call the Time Investment Principle. Give priority to being an active mentor, coach, and encourager.
2. Bring out the best in people through positive reinforcement. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the old axiom, “what gets rewarded gets done.” Positive reinforcement involves leveraging favorable consequences to increase desired behaviors. It is immediate, frequent, and certain, in sharp contrast with the so-called performance incentives used most often in our profession.
3. Don’t ignore the power of emotion. Research shows that a person’s EQ (emotional quotient) is a much better predictor of leadership ability than IQ. EQ is a measure of one’s ability to discern and manage the emotional context of human relationships (i.e., emotional intelligence). Why is it so important? Because emotions powerfully affect your interactions with others, which is where leadership happens.
4. Promote simplicity and focus. The unfortunate reality is that most management actions make life more difficult in an organization—more steps to follow, forms to fill out, and things to remember. The overload and complexity exact a heavy toll on efficiency and success. The new wave of leadership stresses the power of simplicity and focus.
5. Use influence rather than positional power. Exercising authority over people is sometimes necessary, but it’s a poor excuse for leadership. Leaders influence others to follow even if they have the authority to tell them what to do. Here’s why: Mandates typically produce “compliant effort”—doing the minimum required—versus discretionary effort, which is giving more than is required. Discretionary effort is drawn out through influence and positive reinforcement. Want-to produces far better results than have-to.
6. Shift more time from urgent, nonimportant activities to nonurgent, important activities. Time is your most strategic personal and corporate asset. Unfortunately, in many organizations, time is allocated based more on externally-driven urgency than internally-defined importance. This mindset drives many leaders to spend most of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks. But according to one study, leaders in the top performing organizations flipped the script, spending most of their time working on important-yet-not-urgent tasks.
7. Manage nonbillable time. For those engineers in the consulting business, you’re no doubt familiar with the constant push to increase billable hours. But the actions that drive your firm’s success—strategic implementation, business development, operational improvements, professional development—draw from the pool of nonbillable hours. In most engineering firms, this time is haphazardly managed, unlike billable project time. A better way is to manage your nonbillable “investment time” with the same discipline as your billable work tasks.
8. Foster a culture of collaboration. The advantages of multidisciplinary teams are apparent, but too often the potential benefits are diluted by organizational silos and inadequate coordination. What’s the solution? Strong leadership. There’s no reason why you can’t translate the varied strengths of different areas of expertise into better designs, more innovation, greater efficiency, and higher-value services.
9. Challenge the status quo. You don’t need leaders if your organization isn’t undergoing change. By change, I mean proactive, internally-driven change, not simply scrambling to keep up with external changes (like the economy) over which you have no control. Successful leaders are change agents. They know how to overcome the typical resistance to change, to define a compelling vision for the future, and to implement the steps toward realizing that vision.
10. See things through to the end. Many leaders are more effective at starting things than finishing them. They love creating vision, outlining plans, initiating changes, building consensus. But many lose focus and energy over the long haul. That’s one of the main reasons that strategic change initiatives ultimately fail. Effective leaders engage, support, and encourage their coworkers to keep the effort on strategic tasks going until successful completion.