Lessons for Millennials Entering the Engineering Industry

With ever increasing competition, it is getting harder and harder for young professionals to get their start in the industry. Just the process of landing that first job can be a soul-destroying experience – especially if you are expecting to land that dream job straight out of university.

A great starting point, for students to get some perspective is to seek out industry leaders for a few minutes of their time. You’ll find that many of those whose careers you admire did not envision themselves ending up where they did. For most, their success has come from simply, at each stage, making the best choices they could with the opportunities available to them at the time; mixing courage with pragmatism.

You should therefore aim to keep an open mind, work hard, and look for opportunities to adapt your skillset and career in the direction of your strengths. Along the way the following pointers should serve you well:

Start out in a small engineering business

Most importantly, if you can, don’t start your career in a large firm. You will be a small cog in a big machine, responsible for a small sliver of the projects you work on, and probably having zero involvement with the customers.

When you are fresh out of university your knowledge is fresh and you are used to being pushed to the limit of your abilities (and your responsibilities at home will generally be minimal). Your focus needs to be on skill acquisition, not money, this is the time when you need to be thrown into the deep end and a keep your learning curve near vertical.

In a small business they will often be short-staffed and you will quickly have responsibility for a substantial part of the projects that you work on. You will have to learn fast how to manage a project throughout its life-cycle and how to communicate with customers. Because of the small number of staff, you will get the opportunity to do advanced tasks years before your colleagues in larger firms.

After a number years of running this gauntlet of anxiety, self-doubt, and many long hours of unpaid overtime, you will emerge with a very bankable skillset.

As an aside, don’t try to progress into management too quickly. Nail your skills first. You can’t manage what you don’t understand, and real understanding requires grinding long hours of hands-on experience.

Find opportunities to regularly apply your engineering knowledge to real world situations

Theoretical knowledge that has not been refined through repeated practical experience is unreliable, and apt to produce odd results (e.g. just because your concept design works in an FEA simulation doesn’t mean that a welder can make it).

Engaging in projects throughout your degree:

(1) Will make your knowledge more valuable to an employer,

(2) Demonstrate to an employer that you will continue to pursue mastery of your skills after they employ you (meaning reduced training costs, and rapid appreciation in the value of your skills),

(3) Indicates an ability to collaborate effectively as a team with other professionals,

(4) May provide opportunity to demonstrate entrepreneurial talents (indicating potential as a ‘rain-maker’ for the firm), and

(5) Will help you to figure out where you fit in your industry (So that you can focus your energies on where your natural talents allow you to deliver the most value).

Such opportunities can be gained with local engineering firms. Don’t hesitate to contact these firms for work experience and employment opportunities. This will give you a serous edge upon graduation and allow you to hit the ground running. Don’t wait until graduation to start engaging with industry, you can’t think your way to clarity when finding your place in the world, this can only be done by practical experience.

Treat the tradies with respect

Always be respectful to the traidies. As a young engineer many of the traidies that you work with will have been working in the industry for about 20 years, early in your career their experience is more reliable than your theoretical knowledge – listen to them.

Respect is currency:

(1) Treat them with respect and they will be a rich source of information, disrespect them and they will let you fail.

(2) Establish good relationships and they will keep you updated on the latest developments on site.

(3) Ask for their opinions on your designs and they will alert you to things that work in theory, but are not practical to fabricate.

(4) Earn their respect for your competence, and they will soon stop hazing you and go out of their way to help you in any way they can (as your competence makes their job easier).

It is faster and less expensive to learn from the mistakes and experience of others. And having many allies will speed the advancement of your career. Treat everyone with respect, regardless of perceived ‘rank’, you never know what you might learn from them or when you might need their help.

Your degree is merely your ticket to the starting line of an engineering degree

Completing an engineering degree is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It is therefore common for engineering grads to think that after those hellish four years they have earned their stripes and their right to their dream job.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t see it that way. The degree is only an assurance to your prospective employer that you have the potential to learn the job of being an engineer. It will take the next several years of focused grinding hard work to start to become an engineer capable of taking on leadership responsibility for projects in your own right.

Don’t make the mistake of feeling cheated when your first job is an uninspiring grind. The repetition, although mind numbing at times, will refine your skills laying the foundation for you to become a safe pair of hands for your firm.

Promotion comes from making the interests of superiors reliant on your advancement

You don’t get promoted by showing up on time, working hard, and being congenial. That is all expected of you as part of your job. People don’t promote you as a reward for good behaviour, they promote you if it furthers their interest to do so.

So, as a young engineer, work hard to make the success of your superiors reliant on your career progression:

(1) Work hard to develop rare and valuable skills, during and outside work hours (e.g. courses, reading textbooks, side projects etc).

(2) Be entrepreneurial and find ways to optimise the value generated by your business unit (you don’t need a title to show leadership). The best opportunities you will have are when your colleagues realise that the current methods or systems will not deliver success. If you can chart the course they will usually follow you.

(3) Pitch new ideas to your boss on anything that will improve the bottom line (employees who can solve problems, not just report them, are a godsend to their managers).

(4) Work hard on your ability to communicate complex ideas to non-technical audiences, showing how your proposals will address their interests and concerns. This will serve you well with customers and senior decision-makers.

(5) Develop your network at all levels of the business, and outside the business. Employees that have their ‘ear to the ground’ often become valued advisers to their managers, and these networks will help you succeed as you progress and implement changes to the systems in your area.

(6) Learn how to market and bring clients in.

Remember that leadership is about service, not status. Your job is to chart the course for the success of your team, and to remove the obstacles in their path to achieving it. Demonstrating your ability to drive project success will lead to advancement – as your managers will allocate you to increasingly high-profile tasks, the tasks on which their advancement depends.

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Technical Specifications – Where the Trouble Starts

It is no secret that the source of most problems in a technology-centric contract is the specification.

(1) If the specification is vague, or mistakenly relies on the propensity of the reader to fill the gaps with the same assumptions as the writer, then each party will have a different understanding of what is to be delivered. This leads to two potential problems:

(a) The supplier delivers something different to what the purchaser actually requires; or

(b) The purchaser can continually use the ambiguity in the specification to deny payment or insist on endless rework.

Ultimately, each party will rely on its own interpretation and assert that the other party has breached the contract.

(2) If the specification turns out to be unworkable, there will need to be appropriate contractual mechanisms and an effective working relationship to resolve this. Without this:

(a) The purchaser will assert that the supplier is trying to deliver less than what was agreed to, or repudiating the contract; and

(b) The supplier will be burdened with the cost of rework or even abandoning the project.

The end result (if delivered) will likely struggle to fulfil the purchaser’s purposes for the project. Again, this difference in what each side had in mind when entering the contract provides fuel for disputes.

It is little wonder that most disputes come back to the specification, as it provides the baseline on which the major parts of a technology-centric contract rely:

(a) Payment terms rely on acceptance that certain features of the specification have been met;

(b) Warranty terms rely on answering whether the deliverables have failed to perform according to the specification;

(c) Maintenance and service level agreements rely maintaining or returning the deliverables to the requirements of the specification;

(d) Liquidated damages clauses will rely on determined whether certain aspects of the specification have been met by a certain date;

(e) Variation clauses rely on determining the extent to which a change request is a deviation from the agreed scope of work;

(f) Common law rights of termination and damages rely on discerning the disparity between what was delivered and what was required;

(g) The pricing of the contract relies on the interpretation of what is required to satisfy the specifications;

And ultimately, a failure to translate purchaser expectations into a specification, which, if delivered will satisfy them, risks the agreement ending in disputes and project failure.

The trouble with specifications is that they exist at the intersection of three project vulnerabilities:

(1) Specifications are often drafted by engineers, or other technical professionals. These professionals are accustomed to communicating using the jargon and terminology of their respective fields and not for the broader audience that a contract specification must communicate to. They risk drafting the specification in a manner that is riddled with numerous assumptions because in their mind those assumptions ‘go without saying’.

Unfortunately, any audience outside that area will apply their own assumptions to fill those gaps and arrive at a different interpretation of what is required. Furthermore, a non-technical audience (e.g. lawyers, managers and business people etc) will often be unable to traverse those assumption-gaps in the specification and struggle to read the document at all.

(2) The lawyers engaged by the parties to draft and negotiate the contract often lack the technical literacy to address shortcomings in the specification, don’t know the right questions to ask, and won’t want to concede that they don’t understand it. As a result they are likely to gloss over the specification and revert to risk-shifting clauses to pin the cost of eventual project issues on the other party. For those who desire to ‘leave the contract in the draw’ while administering the project, risk-shifting clauses provide little assistance.

(3) The more unique a project is the more difficult it is to predict all the issues that may arise. As the saying goes, ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. The art in drafting specifications, is in providing adequate quality and performance goals, while allowing room to adapt to handle uncertainties as they occur during the life of the project.

For example, there may be known uncertainty at the outset about what exactly will be required, or whether certain performance levels can be guaranteed. Options to deal with this may include the use of a high level specification, with a more detailed specification to later be accepted or rejected against that high level specification once those unknown have been addressed; or the specification might provide room for the supplier to determine the best trade-off within specified tolerances.

The best way to keep a project on track is to avoid disputes from arising at all. The most fertile origin for disputes in a technology-centric contract is the specification. In the worst case, it will be a legally trained mind (i.e. a judge) that will finally determine the ‘proper’ meaning of the contract.

Therefore, the best means to de-risk a technology-centric contract is to engage professionals at the start who have the skills and expertise to critically analyse specifications from both a legal and technical standpoint. Engaging such expertise before signing the contract reduces the risk to all parties and ultimately, makes the project much more likely to succeed.

See also: How lawyers can serve engineers better

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How engineers can get their projects approved

Let’s be frank, communication is a common problem in engineering. Engineers often encounter difficulty in selling their solutions to those with the power and money to make them happen. Were it otherwise we would not have had a number of presentations at the Australian Engineering Conference lamenting the sporadic (rather than integrated) approach to infrastructure projects in this country.

What is needed is to apply some basic principles of advocacy and persuasion:

Step 1: Get their attention

Step 2: Make them want it

Step 3: Help them justify it

Too often the first two steps are skipped to focus on the details. However, the following engineers knew the value of entertaining their audience and speaking to their self-interest. As a result they were successful in getting the political and financial capital they needed for their projects.

Examples of engineers who successfully had their projects approved

(1) Elon Musk built attractive demo models of his Tesla cars for the venture capitalists to test drive; he throws exclusive parties for the media at the Tesla factory to announce new features; and he uses the Tesla mission and aesthetic to win the will of the public.

(2) General Sir John Monash would invite superiors, politicians and royalty to inspect his troops. When they came he put on spectacular demonstrations that entertained them and played to their egos. He would also attend dinners and parties and charm the friends and peers of those whose approval he required to advance his plans.

(3) Nikola Tesla expressly set out to demonstrate his discoveries and inventions in a visually entertaining way. As he stated in his lecture delivered before the IEE in London in 1892 “It has been my chief desire this evening to entertain you with some novel experiments.” This approach earned him media attention and numerous invitations to present his work.

While it is natural for engineers to focus on the elegance and technical superiority of their projects, the above engineers knew to remember their audience. Big projects require the backing of political and financial capital, both of which are often held by those with non-technical backgrounds.

Such an audience has political or financial capital because they have focused on the pursuit of these things. So grab their attention by portraying your ideas in a visually entertaining way and show them how your project will help them further (or avoid harm to) their interests. Visually entertaining demonstrations will also help gain media attention which will amplify the reach of your message and gain the interest of the public.

This leads on to the final point – gaining political and financial capital is greatly assisted by having the support of the public. I can say from experience that politicians are far quicker motivated to action by a critical media, than by the receipt of detailed submissions or proposals. Your careful work will be of little priority, and easily abandoned by politicians, without the support of the public and the media. So feed the media and sell your projects on how they will relieve the frustrations of every-day people.

AustraLaw believes strongly in the importance of engineering projects. The work of engineers provides the physical and electronic infrastructure to drive the economy and improve the lives of everyday people.

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Interpreting legislation for Engineers

Engineering provides an excellent foundation from which to understand the interpretation of legislation and challenging of government decisions. With legislation invading nearly every aspect of a project, misunderstanding it has become a risk in itself – and you can’t manage what you don’t understand.

As most engineers will have learned some form of programming language at university, this provides a good framework for understanding the process.

A basic outline of creating legislation:

(1) The Parliament produces the legislation.

(2) The Executive (government departments) executes the legislation. Evidence and submissions are the inputs, and decisions are the outputs.

(3) Lawyers review the decisions for errors and unintended results.

(4) Courts correct the decisions and provide patches (in the form of precedents).

(5) The Parliament reviews the performance of the legislation from time to time and produces updates (in the form of amending legislation and regulations).

Legislation, like software, uses definitions and an ‘if this, then do this’ approach. Where legislation neglects to provide for a particular situation, or fails to define key terms, lawyers must draw on their knowledge of past cases and other legislation (such as the Interpretation Act 1987 (NSW)) to read between the lines.

When reviewing the decisions of government departments, lawyers are checking to see whether the decision-maker properly interpreted the legislation, relied on the correct inputs, and took a rational path to the decision. This is an area of law (Administrative Law) that can get particularly technical.

It is not uncommon for decision-makers to misinterpret legislation, or neglect to take important evidence into account. AustraLaw are experienced in keeping government decision-makers accountable, and advising on legislative requirements.

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