Engineering a Difference

May/June 2018

Engineering a Difference


Dan Ryan

Young engineers are the lifeblood of the profession. Without an infusion of fresh talent, companies experiencing high levels of baby boomer retirements will wither away.

And if the profession is going to remain relevant to young professionals, then companies need to understand their values, says Dan Ryan, principal of Ryan Search and Consulting, a talent acquisition and development firm focusing on the AEC industry and others.

Those include making a positive impact, on everything from the local community to the entire planet. Studies point to millennials’ social consciousness and their desire for work that’s not only personally meaningful but that also allows them to contribute to a greater good. How does that play out for young engineers, and what does it mean for the profession?

By the Numbers

The stakes are high for companies to get this right: Millennials are both the largest and fastest growing segment of the workforce. By 2025, they’re expected to comprise three-quarters of all US employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

The borders of the generation vary depending on which source you consult. The Pew Research Center puts the range as 1981–1996. Young people born earlier may fit into the “Xennial” designation, a thin slice between millennial and Gen X. Members of this category may share characteristics of both the earlier and later generations.

While pinning down the border years can be challenging, it’s easier to find agreement about the traits millennials commonly share: technical savvy, yes, but also the aforementioned social consciousness. A 2017 survey by Deloitte found that more than three-quarters of millennials have participated in a charity or good cause.

That drive to make a difference carries into the workplace, where millennials bring their idealism and passion. According to the Deloitte study, two-thirds of millennials consider business as a “force for positive social impact.” Recognizing their limited power to affect some of society’s biggest challenges, millennials can feel a greater sense of control with actions taken at work, the report notes.

Companies can attract the younger generations by providing day-to-day work with positive impact, but also by offering opportunities to participate in good causes, Deloitte explains—“helping young professionals to feel empowered while reinforcing positive associations between businesses’ activities and social impact.”

While companies might argue that this is not their reason for existing, millennials expect businesses to do more than pursue financial success. And in the competition for talent, that can make a difference. The Deloitte report continues, “those businesses that do engage in issues of concern to millennials are more likely to gain their trust and loyalty.” (See infographic)

A Significant Difference

Engineers through the ages have entered the profession to pursue work that makes a difference (particularly PEs, who are sworn to protect the public health, safety, and welfare). But some see a meaningful shift in the younger generations.

As Ryan explains, “the whole aspect of social action, having your work being tied into some greater good, I’ve never seen it more valued or more focused upon as I see it now.”

That’s a factor across engineering industries and disciplines, he says, but it manifests frequently in the civil and environmental world. Young engineers may get involved with sustainability issues or become LEED-certified. “It has roots in the whole issue of trying to make the world a better place,” Ryan says.

Millennial Kristin Caracappa, P.E., chose a degree in environmental engineering because she wanted “to be part of planning for a more sustainable future.” The NSPE member is now working as a floodplain engineer for multinational firm Amec Foster Wheeler, helping to protect the public from recurring floods.

NSPE’s 2017 Young Engineer of the Year, Erin Wagoner, E.I.T., considers herself a Xennial. The project administrator for the Louisville (Kentucky) Metropolitan Sewer District says that she chose her disciplines of civil and environmental engineering because of their “intrinsic connections with public service and making a difference.” She wanted to have a positive impact on the world, she continues.

Janelle Kolisch, PE

Janelle Kolisch, P.E., a Xennial mechanical engineer, says she didn’t choose her discipline for the potential to give back, but that was the reason for her choice of engineering as a profession. In addition, the senior commissioning agent at CBRE/Heery explains that her mission when she was job seeking was to “help promote environmental, economic, and social sustainability through innovative design and implementation of sustainable projects for the built environment.”

Multiple Priorities

When they’re just starting out in their careers, young engineers may be more focused on practical concerns. For instance, Kimberlee McKitish, P.E., explains that she graduated in December 2009 at the height of the recession. “I was just trying to get any position that was available,” says the millennial who also identifies with the Xennial mindset.

But as they gain experience, making a difference may take on renewed importance for young engineers. McKitish, structural department manager for NuTec Design Associates Inc. and a LEED Green Associate, enjoys helping her clients create facilities that are more sustainable and resilient.

And in joining other companies, McKitish says, she would want to know that they were interested in helping others. “It’s not the only thing that someone in my generation thinks about,” the NSPE member explains, “but it’s definitely a big part and would hold quite a bit of weight in any decision I would make in the future.”

Kelly Rhoades, P.E., instrumentation and controls design engineer for Zachry Engineering Corp. in Denver, got her job from an internship. When she was searching, “I was most concerned with getting an internship.” But her company’s participation in an annual United Way campaign, helping organizations in local communities, is among the reasons she’s stayed, the NSPE member says.

Carried to Careers

Young people with service project experience in high school or college may bring a desire to continue that type of work into their careers.


Xennial Rebecca Alvarez, P.E., had gone on mission trips in high school. In her first job out of college, a coworker told her about a local Engineers in Action chapter that was forming to perform engineering work overseas. “At that point I was thinking, ‘Am I going to have to go to work every day for the rest of my life and do nothing else?’” she explains. The opportunity was a fulfilling way to give back, the NSPE member says.

When Wagoner was a student at the University of Louisville, she helped start an Engineers Without Borders chapter and led water and sanitation service projects in Belize.

Working at the sewer district, Wagoner finds public service integrated into her daily work. But she is also happy to be part of an organization that enacts positive change further afield. The district has partnered with a local nonprofit that provides sanitation and drinking water solutions and training in other countries. “That allows for another level of connection to what we all love and value about water service,” Wagoner says.

In college, Kolisch spent four months over a summer volunteering in Africa with Engineers for a Sustainable World, redesigning a solar oven and getting it ready for mass production. For the project, the NSPE member teamed up with one other student and a nongovernmental organization, working with local contractors and handling logistics with little oversight and direction.

This was in place of a “normal” internship, she explains, and when she interviewed at college events, some companies noted that she wouldn’t be a good candidate without that experience. “I immediately knew if a company did not value the lessons I learned from this independent, in-depth volunteering experience, then I did not want to work for them,” Kolisch says.

Added Benefits

Alvarez secured her current job, at Guy Engineering in Tulsa, Oklahoma, thanks to her volunteer work with Engineers in Action. There, she met her future bosses and befriended at least three of her future coworkers before she interviewed, explains the vice president of business development.

Guy offers one hour of volunteer time each month, bankable up to four hours, for any volunteer activities employees choose. And they can apply for grants to support organizations they work with.

Almost every year, Guy sends a group to Bolivia to perform service work. And throughout the year, the whole firm takes part in activities such as a school-supplies drive or working on a home with Habitat for Humanity. To celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary in 2017, employees performed 30 acts of kindness.

Alvarez says she’s proud to work for the company. “That’s why a lot of people at Guy Engineering really love it here,” she says. “We think outside of ourselves, think of what the community needs and how to give back.”

In addition, the PE says doing so provides job satisfaction that doesn’t come from regular work life, where road and bridge projects can take years to complete. In contrast, “doing good deeds provides instant satisfaction.”

Opportunities to give back can also result in happier and more satisfied employees, Alvarez says. Engaging in service opportunities can help employees grow closer, which benefits the company as a whole as well as employees’ personal lives. Alvarez even met her future husband on a trip to Bolivia with Guy.

Ethics, Not Values

Benjamin Stallwitz, P.E., an electrical engineering department manager for Zachry Engineering in Texas, provides a counterpoint. He is a millennial inspired to pursue engineering by the Apollo space program and the idea of doing something “epic” and meaningful. However, he thinks companies should promote ethical practice more than any specific values of “doing good.”

The latter can be dangerous territory, the NSPE member says. “When you decide what’s good for people, you stand to alienate people who have good intentions and mean well but maybe don’t see things the same ways.” Everyone has different beliefs about what’s good, he adds, especially in our politically diverse culture.

Stallwitz does believe in companies participating in community outreach, such as building houses with Habitat for Humanity, feeding people in a shelter, or supporting a foster home, as Zachry does. “Maybe it’s splitting hairs,” he says, maybe that’s a part of doing good. But it’s different than setting a company-wide policy.

In contrast, written ethics are a guiding document that can give all employees the ability to buy in and take ownership, Stallwitz says. “Everyone knows what they’re signing up for.”

Lessons Learned

Companies that do promote service opportunities can help ensure success by keeping certain suggestions in mind. Ensure leadership and support at the highest levels, says Wagoner. Especially if the company is engaged in international service projects, which require staff time and resources.

Kolisch points to the importance of companies allowing employees to choose their own activities to give back. While her current company offers employees two days of paid time off annually for volunteering outside of the office, it’s tied to a list of approved organizations. She believes activities should be open, with a manager’s approval.

Not all types of giving back originate from an organization and planned events, says Kolisch. It may be picking up trash in a park with friends, raising money for a local family needing help, or taking an elderly neighbor to a doctor’s appointment. “I think it’s important for companies to not just promote ‘doing good,’” she says, “but to give employees a platform and resources to do the type of ‘doing good’ that matters to them personally.”

And Alvarez says that since engineers are so busy, in-house activities usually work better if there is a set person designated to organize them. In her company, that’s the administrative staff. It wasn’t as effective to have engineers setting things up, she notes. When they got busy, the activities fell to the bottom of their priority list.

Recruitment Tool

Service opportunities can help companies get noticed by job candidates. Dan Ryan’s clients promote their community involvement on their websites as a way to attract future employees, he says. That points to another major characteristic of millennials: “We’re recruiting a generation right now that has greater access to data in real time than anybody has ever had,” Ryan adds. “So, if you’re not representing yourself appropriately in the web or social media space, you’re not going to be attractive.”

Guy Engineering shares ways they give back on Facebook, on their website, and in e-newsletters, as well as in benefits information for candidates.

Alvarez perceives a shift within the last 10 or so years: When she first graduated college, she didn’t see as many companies promoting their service activities as she does now. But young engineers she talks to seem to want to give back, she says. “Unfortunately, we can’t all work for nonprofits, so we all are looking for a normal job that supports the idea of doing good.” In addition, members of the younger generations like to connect to each other through these types of activities, she notes.

Alvarez discusses Guy’s service opportunities in most interviews she conducts. In a tight labor market where companies are competing for talent, she believes that demonstrating the ways companies support employees in giving back can be a draw for young engineers who care about more than the bottom line.

When there’s not enough engineers to go around, “it’s definitely a part of being an attractive place to work,” Alvarez says.

And it may not be just young engineers who are interested in this benefit. Kelly Rhoades says that managers at Zachry mention service opportunities in interviews, “similar to a perk the company offers.”

Reasons Galore

As Ryan points out, engineering is an industry that’s often visible only when a tragedy strikes, such as the recent pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University. But community involvement can bring positive visibility.

And recruiting based on engineers making a difference can start even earlier than the job market. Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology selected the tagline “Create for Good” to align with students’ desire to make a positive difference, explains Dennis Irwin, P.E., F.NSPE, dean of the college. The implication is that engineers are creators, they create for the good of the world, and “they create sustainable and lasting solutions to problems that matter,” says the immediate past chair of NSPE’s Professional Engineers in Higher Education.

As Irwin notes, “If we as engineers are not making a difference, who will? Lots of people have the inclination, but we have the inclination and the ability.”

And, as noted previously, company and industry survival require understanding the values of young professionals. As a Harvard Business School article, “How to Hire a Millennial,” says, “With boomers retiring and Gen Xers aging, millennials are now the largest portion of the workforce and are already starting to rewrite the rules. Companies must learn to play by those rules or risk losing out.”