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Value of Workplace Training

I would like to thank the editors of Civil Connection for providing me the opportunity to contribute to our collective knowledge and professional growth. I hope that I will be able to provide a basis for discussion among my younger peers, as well as engineers that have decades more experience than me. I would like to begin with a discussion that reflects the past several years’ worth of debate regarding engineering education and the changing professional workplace.

Without repeating the volumes of dialogue on the topic, it is apparent to most in the engineering community that the typical, four-year bachelor’s degree is not what it used to be—both in depth and breadth. In response, the ASCE has published its “Body of Knowledge” regarding the issue and provided several recommendations about how to improve our standards for professional licensure. While understandable, these recommendations seem to ignore a potentially important theory that has been put forth recently: that today’s teenagers and college students learn and absorb information in a much different manner than has been the norm up until the mid-1990s.

Several of ASCE’s recommendations focus on the need for an advanced graduate degree as a prerequisite for licensure, based partly on comparisons with the legal and medical professions. The rationale is that the civil engineering field is just as complex and students need to have a solid technical background. This is a firm foundation for their case, and there is a clear benefit from more education, as much after licensure as before. On the other hand, it neglects crucial consequences of this new learning environment: Young engineers of today and tomorrow may develop just as broad a background in the workplace as in the classroom, and that real-world experience often is more valuable. Not only are today’s students able to process a greater amount of information in a shorter time than their predecessors, they often are able to switch tasks more quickly.

What this means to managers is that they should depend less on a university diploma and more on an individual’s particular characteristics and background to determine who is the right fit for their firms. Indeed, even an advanced degree does not guarantee that a job candidate has the right experience for stepping into a design or management role. Further, such a candidate likely will expect a higher pay rate with no real-world experience to support it.

The alternative to such a situation is to refocus the hiring of young engineers, evaluating how potential job candidates will fit into the firm and how they will be trained. Contrast this with the typical strategy of immediately asking what specific skills they bring to the table. Today’s students often have background and skills that do not translate directly to the standard resume. Workplace training, therefore, becomes crucial to creating an engineer who understands the operation of the firm, the unique laws and regulations pertaining to the work, and the interaction of client, consultant, contractor, and the public.

As our more experienced mentors begin to retire, it will be especially important to have on hand a diverse array of skilled employees to take their places. Just as our elders will depend on us younger engineers and technicians to gradually assume more responsibility, so too do we depend on them. Their experience, insight, methods, and networks will eventually be ours. But it is not automatic, nor is it taught in a classroom. A firm’s own internal training budget is an investment in longevity and organizational culture. Spend it wisely.

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