OLDER, EXPERIENCED engineers have likely been through at least one economic downturn before the one currently being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most recent significant recession having taken place just a little more than a decade ago. So they know what to expect and how to keep their focus on recovery.
But younger engineers—those hired after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009—have experienced an economy that has been mostly strong until now. They have never been through anything like the disruptions that are predicted by current architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) economic experts, and may be concerned about their futures.
“There’s a whole generation of engineers who’ve never seen anything other than salary increases every year and promotions every year—bigger and better!” says Lee W. Slade, P.E., M.ASCE, the chair of Walter P Moore, which is based in Houston. The firm has grown considerably in the past 10 years, he says, so as much as 60 percent of the company’s employees have not lived through such an event. “It’s going to be kind of a shock for some of those folks to see that suddenly things aren’t as rosy next year as they were last year,” he says.
But if experience teaches that the good times can’t last forever, it also shows that design and construction are cyclical professions. “We don’t know when,” Slade emphasizes, “but there will be a rebound, and we want to be ready for it.”
Andy Howard, the Los Angeles-based chair of the Americas region for the global firm Arup, encourages feedback from employees who are concerned about their futures. “It’s hard to reassure [people when they] are worried about their jobs,” Howard concedes, so he tries to remind them that economic cycles come and go. The firm is employee owned, so he tells workers that “we’re in this together, and it will pass,” he explains. “It’s our firm, and we’re only taking actions that first and foremost will sustain jobs and … the firm’s health and readiness to rebound.”
Develop New Skills
The best way younger engineers can weather the uncertainties is to spend the time honing their skills, according to more experienced engineers. “Those who have the broadest skill set … who are well-rounded, who can help their companies compete—both from a technical standpoint and from a client-service standpoint—are probably the ones who will do best,” Slade notes.
Among the best skills for younger engineers to develop and demonstrate now are scenario planning, systems thinking, decision-making, delegating, patience, and communications—especially “the ability to wait five seconds before speaking or weighing in” during video conference calls, Slade stresses.
Wayne Stocks, P.E., LEED AP, M.ASCE, the president of Thornton Tomasetti, who is based in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office, also advises improving written and oral communications skills. “While not a focus of many engineering programs,” Stocks says, “everything we do as engineers hinges on our ability to communicate effectively.” So using this time to write an article, practice speaking skills, or hone an “elevator speech” to describe your company or your job could prove valuable, he says.
With so many people working from home, it is, ironically, a great time for younger engineers to try to learn new skills and meet new people—albeit remotely, says Stocks. Using platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and even your company’s intranet—if your firm has one—young engineers can learn new skills or aspects of engineering they haven’t previously worked on, Stocks says. They can connect online with more experienced engineers or even nontechnical experts within their own firms as well as with professional societies such as ASCE. (ASCE offers career advice and discussions at Career by Design and COVID-19-related resources here.)
Consider Grad School
Stocks offers similar advice to engineering students who are about to graduate. Since any job interviews will likely be conducted via video, Stocks strongly urges students to practice so that they become comfortable with the format and its idiosyncrasies. He also recommends that job candidates learn as much as possible about the companies they have applied to and remember that hiring managers are dealing with many difficult issues at the moment. “You have to be even more patient than normal and be respectful of their challenges,” Stocks advises.
This might also be a good time to consider graduate school, suggests Slade. And Norman F. Perkins, P.E., M.ASCE, the director of applied science and research at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggests that now is the “perfect time to take advantage of free educational webinars,” including the 10 free professional development hours (PDHs) offered by ASCE.
Students and practicing engineers alike should also consider studying academic topics “not typically associated with an engineering curriculum,” Perkins adds, such as accounting, finance, business generation, risk management, project management, and crisis management—which is especially appropriate just now.
Prepare for a New Normal
It is also important to “continue to network with colleagues and peers” and “volunteer for anything and everything,” advises Jon Jelinek, P.E., a senior associate and facilities team leader at Houston-based Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. “Demonstrate your keen desire to promote your professional development,” Jelinek adds, by creating “an outline of your objectives, and regularly request feedback from your supervisor.”
Lewis Cornell, P.E., M.ASCE, the Fullerton, California-based president and chief executive officer of WSP USA, says his firm is focused on “making sure that our younger, newer engineers, architects, designers, and others are focusing on their technical excellence … during this time. … We’re making sure our folks have access to the systems and programs [they need] because the ‘new normal,’ whatever that will be, is going to undoubtedly change in the future.”
Although no one knows exactly what will happen, “the way we conduct our business will be materially changed,” Cornell predicts. “So we have committed to not only our younger staff but all staff across the board that we will keep them engaged and solicit their feedback and input as we take this journey. Together, we can all come out of this stronger.”