5 Tips for Engineers Starting Their Career

With commencement speech season upon us again, I wanted to share some of the thoughts and observations I have compiled over my 40-year career in the world of construction and engineering with new engineers starting their career this spring. These observations are things I believe all new engineers should experience but may not have learned in their coursework. Here are five tips I believe will help engineers starting their career:

Develop a relationship with a mentor

When I graduated from the University of Minnesota, the engineers I worked for were of the opinion that I graduated with, whether it was true or not, about 10 percent of the knowledge I needed to be an “effective” engineer. In fact, effective engineers do much more than just calculations and solving problems. Based on my observations, I would venture a guess that engineers these days graduate with about 30 to 40 percent of what they need to know.

However, your education won’t be the only source of knowledge you build your career upon. As you begin your professional career, it will be important to tap into the vast amount of knowledge and experience that exists in the workplace among your colleagues and supervisors.

“…it will be important to tap into the vast amount of knowledge and experience that exists in the workplace among your colleagues and supervisors.”

I encourage all young engineers starting their career to develop a relationship with a mentor. Look for a mentor who is a generation or two ahead of you in the profession. I suggest a mentor with somewhere between 10 to 15 years of experience.

Once you find a mentor, watch how they work. Listen to how they present their ideas. Pay attention to the words they use to express their thoughts. Think about how you can incorporate what they do into your career development. Seek them out to attend meetings together. Visit project sites. Ask them questions.

Most mentors will embrace the prospect of sharing their knowledge with the next generation of engineers. In fact, they often feel it is their responsibility to share this knowledge. Learning from those already in the engineering profession who have experienced many things in their careers will help you define your career immensely.

Will one mentor do? Maybe. However, given the opportunity, I suggest you find more than one. Each mentor will show you how the challenges they have encountered professionally have shaped their careers and become part of their mode of operation, their “brand.”

As your career evolves, it’s not just the companies you work for that will have a brand. You will also develop your own personal and professional brand. Your professional brand is a reflection of your knowledge, your ability to interact and communicate with others, your ethics, how well you present yourself, how you express and elaborate your thoughts, how involved you are in promoting the profession and how you respect the profession.

Build strong professional relationships

One of the greatest accomplishments you will experience in your career as an engineer is building and developing relationships with your peers, clients and others in related professions. Professional relationships are different than personal relationships because they are based on what you know, how you do things, how confident you are at what you do, how personable you are and who you know.

The single most important thing you can do to build strong professional relationships as an engineer starting your career is to be a strong communicator. As you enter the workforce, develop your interpersonal communication skills to the point where face-to-face conversations are comfortable and you’re able to convey confidence in your skills as an engineer. You’ll be surprised by how many people will stop and listen.

“The single most important thing you can do to build strong professional relationships as an engineer starting your career is to be a strong communicator.”

Also, focus on developing relationships with your peers and other engineers your age. Why? Because they are on a similar career path as you. As you gain experience and move up in your organization, the day will come when you are both in a decision-making position and, thanks to your preexisting relationships, determining how you can help each other will be easy.

Grow through feedback and earning your professional registration

As recent graduates, I know facing more tests, papers and assignments is the last thing you want to do. However, your clients, peers and fellow engineers will be test you every day by the demands of your projects. Granted, you won’t get a letter grade, but you will be graded on how well you do through feedback and conversation.

Don’t be offended by red ink on your reports or the need to do things over or your supervisor wanting to take a different approach. Remember, it is all meant to make you a better engineer.

“Don’t be offended by red ink on your reports…it is all meant to make you a better engineer.”

How else can you become a better engineer? Hopefully, after four years of working under the supervision of more experienced engineers, you will be sitting for the professional registration test, commonly called the Principals and Practice of Engineering examination. Passing this test allows you to put “PE” behind your name and be recognized as a licensed professional engineer.

This will be one of the most difficult and challenging tests you study for in your career. But once you pass this test, you will join a group who have demonstrated to their peers and the public that they have the experience and knowledge to practice engineering in a way that protects public health, safety and welfare.

Market your skill as an engineer

So, you’ve just completed one of the most demanding and toughest curriculum there is and graduated from a great university, now what? We already know you have the knowledge and training to do wonderful things for the profession, community, country and the world.

But simply being a good professional isn’t enough. It is imperative you learn to be an advocate for yourself, your profession and the engineering industry. Everything has a well-defined, useful life and when the need comes to renew those investments, it will be your engineering expertise that leads the way with new ideas and solutions.

“Everything has a well-defined, useful life and when the need comes to renew those investments, it will be your engineering expertise that leads the way with new ideas and solutions.”

Be an advocate who shares the importance of engineers with the public and our government officials. Highlight the importance of engineers in everything we touch, whether it’s related to our infrastructure, technology, natural resources, education or the environment.

Keep a sense of perspective and give back

Lastly, some day in the future when it hits you that you’re successful and well-established in your professional pursuit: take a look back at your career. Remember the road you traveled and all of the people you have been influenced by on your journey. When you look back, consider how you can say thank you and invest in the future with your hard-won expertise.

“It is our responsibility to…help the next generation of engineers learn, develop and succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place.”

Also, give back to your community. Support the organizations that meant something to you along your journey. How you give back is up to you, but be sure you do something.

It is our responsibility to nurture each generation of engineers starting their careers and help the next generation of engineers learn, develop and succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place.

Michael M. Heuer, PE Vice President, Principal Engineer

P: 952.995.2258