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How to mentor engineers of the future: Teaching real-world skills to the next generation

October 25, 2022

By David Clark

Are you helping your up-and-coming engineers develop the skills they need to thrive in the future? A veteran engineer gives some advice to mentors.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that we can no longer rely only on how we did things in the past. Old ways and outdated solutions don’t necessarily work in the hybrid engineering workplace and construction industry of the future.

Such unexpected shifts will continue to be the norm as the exponential rate of change in the world accelerates. We need to train our up-and-coming engineers to prepare for change and guide them in navigating immense problems, such as climate change. The junior engineers of today will encounter problems as leaders that we can’t even imagine right now.

How can we mentor and train those junior engineers to equip them with the skills and tools to help solve those problems? Higher education doesn’t always teach the skills that the industry will need—particularly soft skills that will be highly sought-after in the future, like emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience, and critical thinking. Here are some ideas on how to do that. 

Being a mentor is immensely rewarding. Mentors don’t always have all the answers—but that’s OK. They can help mentees figure out where to look.

Coach mentees on working with others and building emotional intelligence

Great design doesn’t happen in isolation. Big problems will require complex, multidisciplinary solutions. Encourage mentees to learn about their colleagues’ roles in the design team so they can begin to anticipate the needs of others and understand their goals and perspectives.

By developing their emotional intelligence—especially empathy—hopefully mentees will be able to resolve conflicts, see how their own work and emotions impact others, and have the humility to apply a course correction when required. 

Teach problem solving and curiosity

Avoid spoon-feeding junior engineers. It’s important that they learn how to approach problems they’ve never encountered. Guide them to possible solutions, and signpost where they might look:

What is it like? Has anyone encountered something similar? What might the answers look like? Can the problem be broken down into smaller chunks? Does going back to first principles help? Does the solution make sense?

Ensure you provide support. Be ready with a lifeline if they appear to be heading down a rabbit hole—and help them figure out what matters and focus their time on those priorities.

Encourage creativity and innovation

A common perception among engineers is “engineers don’t do design.” While engineering design may not be the same as architectural design, I think we can all agree on something: good design is elegant design. That could include a mechanical process that uses energy most efficiently or a structural system that minimizes embodied carbon.

Engineers are naturally creative, and we need to shift the mindset of engineers and others to understand, value, and celebrate engineering design.

Engineers now and in the future need to be increasingly digitally literate as computers and artificial intelligence continue to impact our work. Iterative design, for example, allows engineers to generate and test many solutions in a shorter and shorter time, and I expect this to become increasingly common. Indeed, engineers will likely be co-designing with AIs in the future.

But making the creative leaps required to develop new solutions requires adapting to fast-changing emergent challenges. Like athletic skills, being creative requires practice and exercise to build strength and keep the creative muscles working. So, I encourage teaching analog skills, such as sketching on paper and storytelling.

Junior engineers should expect to have more than one mentor over the course of their careers, from a range of different roles and backgrounds.

Develop critical thinking

Computers can provide answers, but engineers need to ask the right questions. There is a radio advertisement I often hear on the radio for a local law firm whose tagline is “There are no bad questions.” As a junior engineer, I learned to ask questions and was lucky to work with others that had an open-door approach (or rather a no-door approach, as it was an open office!). Those more senior engineers were prepared to invest the time in helping me and answering my endless questions. In my role as a leader now, I try to apply that approach and investment and help our engineers to ask good questions, challenge assumptions, and critically analyze information that is provided to them.

I encourage junior engineers to ask questions of multiple colleagues—they will often get different, perhaps conflicting answers—and to make their own judgments about the correct answer. In engineering, there isn’t necessarily just one “correct” answer. In fact, the best answer may not be the best solution to the problem.

Push for adaptability and resilience

Encourage junior engineers to get out of their comfort zones and avoid pigeonholing. While the industry will need both generalists who can quickly assess problems and specialists with specific know-how, the rate of change in the industry will require both to keep up-to-date and re-skill when necessary.

Junior engineers should expect to have more than one mentor over the course of their careers, from various roles and backgrounds (e.g., engineers, project managers, trades, constructors, and clients). This may be formal mentoring through their company or engineering institution or more informal mentoring through networking.

Like athletic skills, being creative requires practice and exercise to build strength and keep the creative muscles working.

Model good behavior

As a junior engineer, I learned how to behave by observing others and overhearing conversations—professional development by osmosis. This included meeting clients, interacting with other design professionals and disciplines, and dealing with contractors and tradespeople on site.

This is increasingly difficult to teach in a virtual setting, so find opportunities to invite junior engineers to leave the office and head out to client meetings and site visits. As a mentor, be aware of how you behave and are perceived by others.

Emphasize that real projects have real problems

With the move to the increasing use of technology, it’s important to understand how an engineer’s work relates to the real world. This includes understanding the big picture and the impact of one’s work on the community, for example, and the practicalities of construction and constructability.

Just because you can draw it in 3D doesn’t mean it can be built. And nothing focuses the mind like being asked, “Who designed this?” on site by the person trying to build it. Seeing your design being constructed is a critical part of learning practical design skills and the realities of the construction site versus the virtual world.

Establish strong communication

Mentors need to practice getting better at supporting others. And building relationships with others is critical—although this can be difficult in a virtual environment. During pandemic-related closures, I missed the serendipitous interactions that happened spontaneously when walking around the office pre-pandemic. 

With the emergence of the hybrid work model, we must look to other opportunities for this type of connection. For example, having dedicated time for interactions with a mentor—either face-to-face or over video—isn’t a complete replacement, but it forces the discussions. If there is a regular date in the calendar for a mentor meeting, it’s more likely to happen.

The junior engineers of today will encounter problems as leaders that we can’t even imagine right now.

Support a diverse future

A diverse future requires a diversity of ideas, opinions, and experiences. This also means we need diverse mentors, particularly from under-represented groups. I encourage all engineers to get involved as mentors and provide fresh voices and new faces for our junior engineers to look up to. Unconscious bias training for new mentors is a great way to challenge your own assumptions.

As a professional engineer, I believe my responsibility is to help everyone develop in their careers, from those in my own organization to engineers coming into the industry with overseas educations and many years of experience who wish to become licensed in this country. Seeking out such mentoring opportunities and helping others with opportunity and visibility through your professional engineering institution is a great way to give back.

Learn as a mentor and a mentee

Being a mentor is immensely rewarding. In working with engineering and architecture students in my career, I have realized that I don’t have all the answers. Often their projects are outside my own experience, are novel problems, or are very niche. For example: “How many air handling units do you need to inflate an ETFE roof?” “How much sensible heat does a sheep produce?” “How do I make optically pure ice for my ice hotel chandelier?”

My approach to helping students solve their problems is to say, “I might not know the answer—but I can help you figure out where to look.” Often this prompts my own curiosity to find out. I usually ask them to come back to me and let me know when they’ve figured it out, so I can learn from them, too.

Remember that no one knows everything

I have yet to meet anyone in the construction industry that knows everything. It’s such a broad field, and there is always new stuff to learn. Be both a teacher and a sponge.

  • David Clark

    As the practice leader for our Buildings Engineering group in Southwest Ontario, David is an award-winning mechanical and electrical engineer. He champions the expression of integrated design in the teams he leads and delivers holistic solutions.

    Contact David
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