Growing the next generation of engineers

Aug 21, 2022

We have a responsibility to take the lessons we learned from older generations and refine them to prepare a new generation for success.

As CEO of a consulting firm, son of baby boomers, and father of an 18-year-old starting her post-high school education, I have been thinking about how we prepare our own next generation of leaders. Specifically, what type of relationship do we need to foster between my generation, Generation X, and the next generations (millennials and Generation Z)? How should that differ from the expectations our seniors had for us?

In my work experience, the baby boomers who were my mentors had a strong work ethic, tended to stay with the same employer for a very long time, and felt strong loyalty to their bosses, clients, and colleagues. Work-life balance and personal satisfaction seemed to take a backseat to a “team mentality” and to job stability for this generation. They spent a lot of time teaching and mentoring, but they also expected us to work a lot of overtime and do “whatever it took” to deliver a great product and meet budget and schedule. We were encouraged to ask questions, but were taught to come into their office with an organized list of questions, get answers, then perform our own independent research to get to the next stage of a report or design. Most of our training was through detailed markups of our reports and plans by our supervisors, or field visits during construction, with less emphasis on organized internal or external training classes – this was a real “on the job” education.

So, how should we use the lessons from our training to build the next generation of engineering leaders? What can we learn from our mentors, our own generation, and these new generations?

Here are the key areas we need to focus our efforts:

  1. Delivering on work-life balance. Our generation is more focused on keeping our personal time sacred than our predecessors, and our junior staff have the same mindset. For example, we have the option for junior staff to work a half-day on Fridays. As managers, if our staff opt for this schedule, we need to make sure we plan work accordingly and respect their work schedule. This shift in mindset of converting overtime from a “rite of passage” to a “necessary evil” pushes our focus as managers to better managing project schedules and approaching overtime as a collaborative decision as opposed to a mandate or expectation.
  2. Expect and plan for turnover. While we need to build an environment where staff want to stay for their entire career, a majority will come and go – specifically the junior or entry-level staff. We need to design our employee benefits (such as retirement plans), training tools, and work teams to allow us to attract, retain, and engage staff who may not be here long-term.
  3. Keeping the traditions that worked, while taking advantage of new technology. Detailed markups, field visits with senior staff, and encouraging independent research and organized pursuit of information are still necessary for training staff. However, this level of “on the job” training takes a lot of time. Our senior leadership team is continually challenged to invest this time to train junior staff, knowing this generation is more likely to move around and the effort will be repeated each year or two with new recruits. By bringing our project teams into online collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams or Bluebeam, we can share virtual workspaces and create new training opportunities while minimizing impact on senior staff.
  4. Finding new ways to engage and inspire. We need to continue to find ways to involve new generations as partners in corporate development and team building. We have had success including junior staff on our technical teams and our Continuous Improvement Teams (CITs), where they get to take part in developing new programs and policies. For example, we have tasked our employee engagement team with identifying benefits, fun activities, training ideas, and other new ways to attract, motivate, and retain staff. Some of those ideas included a fitness stipend for employees, and educational reimbursement. We benefited from new ideas, and our staff were able to take advantage of new programs.

In closing, as both a parent of an adult and a CEO actively recruiting younger staff, I feel I’m in the same position as many of my peers the same age. We learned a lot from the baby boomer generation – they made us who we are as engineers and prepared us for success professionally. Now we have the responsibility to take those lessons and refine them for a new generation, with the same need to make them successful professionally. 

Mike Nunley is CEO and president at MKN. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.