Lifelong Learning as an Engineer

Dustin O'Neal, PE

Dustin O'Neal, PE

So, you’re fresh out of TAMU, U of H, Texas Tech, or one of a hundred other ABET accredited universities with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. You’re full of energy, new ideas, and motivation to take on any task thrown at you. You’ve spent at least four years learning about fluid dynamics, concrete design, and geotechnical properties of materials. You are a lean, mean, engineering machine.

Well, a crusty old engineer might tell you that you’re not worth the paper that your degree is printed on until you’ve had at least a few years of experience in the workplace. I’ve met some of those, and while there is some truth hidden in those salty words, I don’t entirely agree. Your engineering degree proves a few things that are invaluable for someone starting their career and trying to add value to a larger engineering machine. First, it proves that you know how to learn. No one gets out of a decent university with an engineering degree unless they’ve got some smarts. Second, it proves that you can work hard, or at least that you can push yourself to do something that doesn’t come easily to you. You may be a wiz at some aspect of civil engineering, but unless you’re the Doogie Howser of engineering (did I just date myself??), you had to buckle down at some point in your college career to get past a terrible class like _____ (fill in the blank; for me it was MEEN 363 – Dynamics and Vibration) and eek out a grade better than a C.

Having said that, I’ve seen it proven over and over that a formal degree in engineering leaves a lot of gaps to be filled before a new graduate is able to be more of an asset to their firm than an investment. I don’t think that’s the fault of the students, or even entirely of the universities. Civil Engineering is so broad, it would be difficult for any school to crank out engineers that are entirely ready to rock and roll right out of school. In fact, the world of Civil Engineering is so complex, nuanced, and built upon experiences that one of the most critical aspects for any engineer to embrace is a love (or at least willingness) to never stop learning. This concept is known as lifelong learning. In the words of Albert Einstein, “wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”.

Lifelong learning can be done in a number of ways according to the website

  • Formal education – takes place in a formal setting such as seeking a college degree, professional certification courses, etc.
  • Self-directed learning – takes place at your own pace and along your own path, such as online courses or online training such as LinkedIn Learning.
  • Professional learning – tied to your occupation or position and can be done through various mechanisms such as on-the-job training, workshops, conference, articles, networking, etc.

All of these types of learning can be an important part of your continued growth and happiness as a person, but the one that I have found to be most valuable (in particular for younger engineers) is professional learning – or on-the-job training. That’s because that style of learning is most immediately impactful on what you do every day as an engineer. Let’s think about the types of things you’re going to need to know as a graduate engineer in land development.

  • Lot grading
  • Resolving boundary conditions with adjacent properties
  • Getting construction plan/plat review and approval by regulatory agencies, including necessary variances
  • Managing the bidding, award, and administration of construction contracts

This list could go on and on, and I dare you to find a book that can cover all these things. And if you do find one, I’d double dare you to find one that can walk you through these things as quickly, effectively, and with as many personal lessons learned as time spent working alongside a veteran engineer.

So, hopefully by now, you understand the importance of lifelong learning as an engineer, and you’re convinced that it will be necessary for you to grow in your field. What’s next? How do you actually go about accomplishing professional learning? Here are some ways you can get moving in the right direction.

  • Lean first on your project manager or direct supervisor (assuming that person is an experienced engineer). He or she will usually be the one sealing the work you do, so they will probably want it done a certain way. And don’t argue with them, but don’t be afraid to ask “why” to make sure you understand. A project manager might find that annoying (especially if you’re up against a tight timeline), but a good project manager with your best of intentions at heart will take the time to explain and to help you grow.
  • Don’t be afraid or overly confident to think you can’t learn from an experienced non-engineer, such as a senior designer or field representative. Many of the practical things I’ve learned post-graduation been from great people in those positions.
  • Pay attention to what others do well. One person might be known as a “lot-grading wizard”. Another might be the “queen of storm calcs”. Take a mental note of that and learn from those that do well. Not only will they be able to give great insight, but they’ll likely be flattered to be able to share.
  • Beware of living in an echo chamber. What I mean by that, is be careful asking those at your same level for highly technical advice. Firstly, they may have holes in their knowledge base and not even know it, thereby passing bad habits on to you. And even if they know enough to get the job done, they will likely not have had enough real-world experience to have learned from their mistakes.
  • Which leads me to the next point, learn from your mistakes! EVERYONE makes mistakes. If they don’t, they’re taking way too long to get something done, or they’re doing boring, foolproof work. You will make a mistake. You will make a client mad. And you may even get yelled at for that mistake. It’s up to you to learn from that mistake and to implement steps to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. This won’t be fun while you’re going through it, but you’ll look back after a number of years and realize how much you’ve learned from being intentional about learning from your mistakes.
  • Take advantage of in-house (or company sponsored) learning opportunities. This can be brown bags on relevant topics at your office, or conferences/seminars focusing on important issues in your profession. Don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor if you can take part in such activities. You may get told no on occasion, but more than likely your employer will support you in your personal growth. And if the answer is no, ask again in the future if another opportunity presents itself.
  • As much as possible, network with others in your profession; first with peers in your office, but also with others in your community. Take part in organizations and associations pertinent to your field. For Civil Engineers, that would include groups like ASCE, TBPE, ASHE, and the list could go on and on. Not only will it force you to grow valuable non-technical skills, but it will help keep you current on new innovations, best practices, and industry changes.

In closing, your personal growth is up to you. Your employer has a vested interest in seeing you grow and will probably even take steps to push you along. But if you don’t do the things listed above in an attempt to be the best engineer that you can be, you have no one to blame but yourself. You’ve pushed through school, you’ve found the job you want, now take the next step and don’t stop!

Dustin O'Neal, PE

Topics: General Interest , Young Engineers Series

Written by Dustin O'Neal, PE