The importance of transferring knowledge

Nov 13, 2022

Investments of time and effort need to be made with younger engineers to effectively transfer technical and communication skills and establish robust future leaders.

couple weeks ago, a good friend of mine retired from the water and wastewater treatment engineering industry after a long and fruitful career. It was difficult for me to see him retire, as he provided invaluable technical knowledge and leadership to myself and others. More importantly, through his daily willingness to pass on lessons learned from a 40-year career of working with nearly every imaginable type of water treatment facility, he set a rare benchmark for young engineers (like myself) to dig deeper technically in developing rare and valuable skills.

This individual wasn’t a casual friend or coworker. Through his humility, patience, and willingness to help me develop invaluable skill sets, he quickly established himself as a mentor and pillar of technical leadership in my life. From the first day I started at MKN, he invested time and effort that provided me with an ever-expanding toolkit of practical lessons and niche technical skills that were delivered to me with deep and profound humility. To put it simply, he was an “engineer’s engineer” who was always willing to teach me as much as he could. His investment in transferring more than 40 years of industry experience continues to provide me with opportunities to grow in my career.

Sadly, older generations are retiring from the workforce more rapidly than in previous years. According to Pew Research, the retired population ages 55 and older grew by about 1 million retirees per year between 2008 and 2019. More recently, the population of retirees 55 and older have grown by 3.5 million over the last two years alone. In the context of the AEC industry, this effectively pushes younger generations to step up to the plate. Investments of time and teaching efforts need to made with younger engineers to effectively transfer “hard” technical skills and “soft” communication skills to establish robust leadership skills. Without transferring key skills required to shape the younger generation of today’s leaders, we are effectively failing to plan and implement critical infrastructure. This dilemma poses a simple question: How do we effectively transfer such skills to prevent this from happening?

  • Invest in younger generations through empowerment. In my experience, the first step to introducing the transfer of both “hard” and “soft” skills usually involves gradually providing team members with responsibilities and providing a real opportunity to succeed. Technical and communicative leadership skills are cultivated by giving responsibilities to team members who either may not have experience (or be particularly comfortable) with initially performing certain tasks. Individuals must be given the opportunity to put themselves in “uncharted territory” if any kind of measurable growth is going to be undertaken. For example, delegation of new responsibilities could be as simple as asking a young engineer who may not have extensive public speaking experience to take the lead in delivering an important presentation to a public agency. However, this approach should always be balanced with support and encouragement. Without adequate support, individuals can often feel lost or alone. For example, if a younger engineer is given the opportunity to develop construction plans and specifications for a piece of infrastructure without being provided proper instruction to develop the design efficiently and effectively, the task quickly becomes daunting. This subsequently portrays the intended learning opportunity as a negative experience, rather than an opportunity for growth.
  • Encourage questions. When I first began my career, I approached a project manager with several questions on how to develop process piping specifications for a wastewater treatment facility design. This wise individual answered, “Never hesitate to bring me any type of question. But with every question, pitch me at least one possible solution.” Questions are incredibly important to advancing the curious and creative nature of our profession. Invest time in encouraging and listening to questions posed by your peers. Better yet, encourage individuals to present accompanying solutions to their questions. If conversations are conducted respectfully, proposed solutions can often spark creative debates. It is during such debates that critical transfers of both technical and communicative skills between coworkers occur.
  • Accept mistakes but foster growth. Mistakes and failures should be expected and accepted. However, when we fail, we must learn and rectify our actions to ensure that failure does not become a recurring theme in our lives. When a younger staff member makes a mistake, collaborate with the individual and have them explain to you how they believe the mistake was made. After listening carefully (without judgement or reproach), ask them: “What do you believe you could do differently to prevent this from occurring in the future?” If appropriate, offer up your perspective on the situation and what you would have done differently. The most memorable and resounding skills that I have acquired in my career have usually resulted from some type of mistake or failure that exposed fatal flaws in my understanding of a concept. When approached with introspection and humility, uncovering our errors in judgement and learning from our mistakes facilitates meaningful acquisition of critical skills.
  • Provide younger staff the opportunity to learn from several senior staff. Some of the most prolific leaders I’ve known have all openly shared how they managed various setbacks and successes in their lives. This kind of open and honest dialogue exposes us to practical solutions in managing the peaks and valleys of our lives. However, it is important that younger staff are exposed to different types of mentorship from multiple senior staff, rather than just one or two senior staff. Since everyone has their own stories to share and different approaches to mentoring, exposing younger staff to a diversity of thought will develop them into more creative and well-rounded individuals. Whether it be in your career or personal life, encourage younger generations to seek out other leaders and mentors who are willing to graciously share stories of successes and failures of themselves (and others) with humility.

Taking the first step in investing in younger generations through empowerment will force them to take the necessary steps to gain key technical and communicative leadership skills. Asking questions, encountering mistakes, and encouraging interactions with other wise individuals further reinforces the responsibilities and support invested in them and provides a practical approach to navigating the challenges and opportunities that life has to offer.  

Stefanos Word, PE, ENV SP, is an associate engineer at MKN. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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