You don’t know what you don’t know. So how do you become a “knower?” Your mentor, or preferably mentors, will help you.
As a young person in a small town, I’d never heard of geotechnical engineering and had never knowingly met a civil engineer. Roads and buildings “just existed” to me; I’d never thought about why or how they came to be. I didn’t think about water supply or wastewater management; these systems just worked suitably and that was that.
As I went through high school and into college, I entered the civil engineering program as being the “brains” of construction – figuring out how things worked. Moving through that program, I found geotechnical engineering, with the application of the principles of engineering, to be particularly appealing. The professor for this subject was very thorough, to say the least, and his students have all turned out to be excellent engineers, which is a testament to the rigors of his instruction. He was one of my first mentors in engineering, and someone whom I maintain contact with, in gratitude.
When I’d moved into the working world and been exposed to many engineers with different talents and levels of skill, one senior engineer took the time to really dive into the “hows and whys” of my projects, , rather than merely the single technical answer at the end of an analysis. A vice president took the time to explain the ways and reasons that certain language segments or procedures were important from a business and risk perspective. Even senior technicians took the time to share their knowledge about the hands-on applications and interpretations of engineering work, and how minutiae can impact testing results.
Although I am no longer working daily with some of these early-career mentors, I find myself reaching out on occasion and thanking those who had enhanced my engineering talents through their tutelage.
Before long, I had new staff asking me questions. (“Why would I know?” I wondered. “I’m just a young engineer!”) But slowly – whether it was how to run simple lab tests, or maintain equipment, or review basic testing reports – I found myself training others as others had trained me.
Eventually, I had surpassed others who had started before me, following in the giant footprints of my mentors. I found myself in an interesting position: constantly teaching those around me while learning from those before me and doing what I could to advance the company and the profession.
Often, companies have set plans and procedures for how to train new staff but don’t always take the time to answer specific questions from young engineers, or impress the “why” part of a procedure or recommendation. Individuals with experience have the responsible charge to lead the people around them and to enhance the total capacity of the engineering profession. Titular authority is not required for being a mentor – just a willingness to engage with others and share basic knowledge.
Now, as a midcareer professional, I consider it both a privilege to be asked to mentor, and a duty to train the future engineering workforce. Although the tools of analysis change with time and get more sophisticated, understanding the principles underlying the analyses and being able to apply reason to the results is an invaluable skill.
Also, the soft skills required to communicate these results to both technical and nontechnical audiences often make the difference in the acquisition of future work. Mentors are the best means of acquiring this talent!
As experienced professionals leave the field, the knowledge that their mentees have a sound understanding of the technical and business aspects of engineering is paramount to continued public trust in the profession and continued diligence in the protection of public safety in the built environment.
You know more than you think.
Take the time to mentor other engineers, just as those who came before mentored you. If you don’t have great memories of mentors, be the mentor you wished you’d had. It is an honor and a duty to mentor.
Joseph M. Rozmiarek, MS, P.E., M.ASCE, is the President and Principal Engineer for Kilo Engineering and leads all technical and business development functions. He has over 10 years of experience in geotechnical and material testing markets, including internal and external consulting. His experience spans commercial, residential, infrastructure and energy markets and he as been part of the design team on projects in 24 states.
Rozmiarek is a member and former officer of the Minnesota Geotechnical Society. He participates as a mentor in the ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) Mentor program, helping high school students learn about future careers. He also works with young engineers across organizations to develop engineering talent for future leaders.
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