The engineering industry turns to mentoring as a tool to recruit and retain young electrical engineers
Twenty-seven-year-old Tyler Squire could crunch mathematical problems in the blink of an eye. When it came to applying his skills to the real world, however, he discovered he had a lot to learn.
“Most of my education focused on microelectronics and circuitry too small for the human eye to see,” says Squire, who earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Utah. “When I graduated, I jumped into a new field, and without having someone to ask questions to, I wouldn't have been able to make it.”
Like many recent electrical engineering graduates, Squire had to learn the construction industry from the ground up when he landed a job at Salt Lake City-based Spectrum Engineers six months ago. For the past few decades, many universities have focused their electrical engineering programs on microelectronics and high-tech industries rather than construction. As a result, many electrical engineers need intense on-the-job training. To get today's electrical engineers up to speed, both consulting firms and plants are turning to mentoring programs.
Spectrum Engineers has mentored its young engineers for the last 26 years. When Squire was hired on as a project engineer, he partnered with David Wesemann, a principal electrical engineer. Wesemann immediately assigned Squire specific, defined tasks and then gradually gave him more responsibility.
As Squire continues to gain experience in the electrical engineering industry, Wesemann is entrusting him with more work. At his firm, recent college graduates have little interaction with clients for their first year. By the end of the mentoring relationship, however, they can take a project from beginning to end with little supervision.
“You can't let a new engineer get out in front of a client and deliver products without being mentored along the way,” Wesemann says. “Otherwise the quality of the work that goes out the door may not be there, and a firm could lose clients.”
If the young engineers are trained and mentored in the right way, however, they can become a valuable asset to a firm, Wesemann maintains. See Five Characteristics of a Good Mentor for specific traits successful mentors seem to possess.
Making mentoring work
If engineering firms execute a mentoring program successfully, they can ease the workload of their senior engineers, train the next generation of new hires, and retain more employees. The mentoring relationship can work a variety of different ways in the electrical industry. Young engineers who work in a plant or in a small engineering firm are often paired with a veteran. Oftentimes, small engineering firms mentor young engineers without even knowing it, says Loren Lacy, a 40-year-old electrical engineer, who has participated in the IEEE mentoring program (see Professional Engineering Associations Offer Mentoring Programs on page 44). The larger the engineering firm, however, the more structured the program needs to become in order to be successful, he says.
Lacy says plants also need to be organized when it comes to their mentoring programs. Two years ago, he helped a semiconductor software plant launch a mentoring program for college graduates. Many of the plant's young engineers were leaving after only three to five years because they weren't satisfied with their progress and didn't see a future for themselves at the company (see What Electrical Engineers Look for in an Employer on page 41).
“We wanted for them to see past their first job and map out their career path,” he says. “For us, it was a retention strategy.”
Before the plant started the mentoring program, at least two or three engineers would have been out the door within the 18-month period. Since the mentoring program has been in place, however, none of the recent college graduates have turned in their resignations.
“It was something that was unique to find in a plant environment,” says Lacy.
Eric Schulz, a long-time mentor and a project manager for CH2M Hill, an Englewood, Colo.-based engineering firm, says in his experience, there is a slight difference between mentoring programs at plants and consulting engineering firms. While consulting work varies from one hour to the next, work in a plant is often much more focused.
“Consulting work is so varied, and a person has to reinvent themselves so frequently,” he says. “If you are a person's mentor, you have to help them to navigate through a wide range of skills and possibilities.”
Whether engineers are working for a plant, a small engineering firm, or one of the nation's largest companies, they often reap the most benefits from a mentoring program that takes a personal approach, Schulz says.
“Organizations can put a framework and company values in place to facilitate mentoring, but it's not something that an organization does — it's something that two people engage in,” he says.
While mentoring programs can vary from one company or plant to the next, they often take anywhere from one year to four years, depending upon the young engineer's prior exposure to the design and construction industry.
When Toby Palin joined CH2M Hill nine years ago as a staff engineer, the Montana State University graduate knew the ins and outs of electrical theory, but was at a loss when it came to conduit bending and navigating the National Electrical Code.
“When you come out of school and you start doing the work, you quickly realize that you don't know anything at all,” says 32-year-old Palin.
Frequently, young engineers aren't necessarily lacking in technical knowledge, but rather in verbal and written communication skills and hands-on/field experience. Veteran engineers often have to teach their mentees how to write a clear and precise letter, respond to a client in a difficult situation, and handle conflict when it arises. Many times, recent grads need to learn how to communicate and deal with different personalities in the office, Lacy says.
“They are great at the theory, the math, and the technology, but when they first encounter a manager who has a certain style that doesn't match with theirs, they don't know what to do,” Lacy says. “They get frustrated and don't know how to approach it.”
Recent grads not only need to work on their social skills, but they also need to change their mindset when making the transition from attending college to working full-time.
“Rather than attacking projects in short bursts like they did in school, they need to think ahead in terms of years rather than semesters,” Lacy says. “They need to go from the sprint mode to the marathon mode.”
Throughout the mentoring process, veteran engineers use every opportunity to teach their protégés how to do their jobs more effectively. Mentors and mentees correspond through e-mail, phone conversations, or face-to-face meetings. Shadowing is also an effective way for young electrical engineers to learn the ropes. At Spectrum Engineers, the principal engineers invite their mentees to accompany them to interviews for new projects, visits to the construction site, or field observations.
“They literally tag along to learn out how they supposed to act and what they're supposed to look for,” Wesemann says. “That way, when they're going into these situations, they're not going in cold.”
Shadowing may seem like a duplication of effort, but in the end, it's a worthwhile investment of the senior engineers' time, he says. The mentors must develop a daily and weekly plan to make sure that they are giving the mentees meaningful work.
“It does take some extra time and effort on the mentor's part,” Wesemann says. “At first, it's a time burden because you're doing things twice. You have to make that investment because the next time you'll only have to redo half of it. Then, the time after that, they'll do more on their own. Before you know it, the investment will pay off because they'll be helping to unload quite a burden off the mentor's plate.”
Mentors must find a way to balance the work they need to get done along with training a young engineer. Wesemann found that one of the most effective and efficient ways to fit mentoring into his schedule is to invite mentees into his office whenever he's working on an important project that carries a valuable lesson.
“The mentor has to look for every opportunity to pass along knowledge and teach them something every chance he or she can,” he says.
Veteran engineers have years of experience to draw from when training young college graduates. However, when it comes to computers, their younger coworkers often have an edge.
“Simply having grown up with computers and knowing them inside and out is a huge advantage,” Squire says. “While a lot of the older engineers do calculations on paper, I can put the numbers in a spreadsheet and finish in one-third of the time.”
Younger engineers are also often more familiar with drafting programs. Rather than asking drafters to make small changes, they can get into the program and make them on their own. In the end, this makes them more productive. Wesemann says it's helpful to have the younger generation be more familiar with high-tech tools and technology. In fact, on many occasions, he says he has brought his mentees into his office to help him.
“I think it's a strength that the newer engineers are more savvy on the digital world,” he says. “Many times I have an idea, and I would normally sit down with a pencil, paper, and calculator and crunch numbers. Instead, I'll bring them into my office, and ask them to create a chart in Excel.”
Because the new engineers are technologically minded, they can create shortcuts for the engineering firm.
“They can perform calculations that we did 20 years ago by hand and help us to automate things,” he says.
While technology can increase efficiency in an engineering firm, both mentors and mentees need to keep in mind that computers and software are simply tools to get the job done and don't make or break an engineer, Schulz says. His mentee, Palin, is a leader on a software team that models electrical systems, and they often work together to make sure that the drawings are correct.
“I understand the software because I use it more than others, but Eric understands the math behind it, and he's always a good person to check it and make it more accurate,” Palin says.
Training the next generation
Despite the gap in knowledge when it comes to technology, mentors and mentees often learn from one another on a daily basis. Through mentoring, engineering firms and plants can also recruit and retain young engineers, which has become especially important due to the ongoing labor shortage.
Because it takes one to four years to get an engineer up to speed, Spectrum is always looking for young engineers to hire, Wesemann says. In fact, the firm often hires seniors in the local university's engineering program and pairs them with a mentor during their internship. If they are hired on full-time, then they continue the mentoring relationship.
“If the right people come along, we hire them,” Wesemann says. “We don't wait for an urgent need for an engineer. While we don't hire everyone who comes our way, we always have our eyes open for qualified people.”
Mentoring has helped the firm to train young engineers, helped them to define their career path, and be prepared for the future. Squire says the program has been a tremendous help to him, and without a mentor, the transition from attending college full-time to working in the construction industry would have been a much bumpier road.
“At first, I felt like I was being thrown in the pool to learn how to swim,” Squire says of entering the consulting engineering industry without a background in construction. “Because I had a mentor, however, I always felt like I had a flotation device to hang onto. There's so much to learn in this industry, and mentoring has been a great way for me to learn and grow in this field.”
Fischbach is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidebar: Five Characteristics of a Good Mentor
Patient. Many times, new engineers have an endless stream of questions for their mentor. Rather than giving them a quick answer, successful mentors should sit down with the young engineers and give them a thorough explanation, if possible.
Knowledgeable. In order to teach younger engineers how to succeed at their jobs, mentors must have years of experience in the electrical engineering field and be willing to share their knowledge.
Easily accessible. Mentors must make sure they are available to answer young engineers' questions and connect with them on a regular basis through e-mail, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations.
Well organized. Seasoned engineers must give their protégés' well-defined tasks that they can easily evaluate and review their work and progress.
Committed. Mentors make a commitment in the personal growth of another person. For that reason, they must be able to help the young engineer grow and change during his or her career.
Sidebar: What Electrical Engineers Look for in an Employer
Potential for growth. Young engineers want the opportunity to progress as quickly as they can in the industry and have a well-defined career path.
Diversity of projects. Engineers also don't want to be restricted to one task or project. Instead, they want to face new challenges, meet new people, and take on different projects.
High compensation and work/life balance. Today's engineers not only want to earn a competitive salary, but they also demand quality benefits, limited required travel, and reasonable work hours.
Sidebar: Professional Engineering Associations Offer Mentoring Programs
Electrical engineers can not only be mentored by veterans within their own companies, but they can also set up a mentoring relationship with other engineers worldwide. The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) offers two programs — Mentor Net and STAR while the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) offers a wide variety of services through its member-only program.
Mentor Net. IEEE members can connect online through the association's mentoring program. For example, Dr. Carolyn McGregor, a computer scientist at the University of Ontario, has mentored four electrical engineers. She says it's important for engineers to find mentors outside their companies, and even outside of their specific engineering discipline.
Task Force. The NSPE created a Mentoring Task Force to research ways to revamp its offerings to better meet its members' needs, says Stacey Ober, senior public relations manager. This member-based committee plans to launch an online forum for mentors and mentees to connect and use social networking sites as a way to connect with the younger generation of engineers. For more information, visit http://www.nspe.org/Employment/MentoringPrograms/index.html.
Professional mentoring groups. In addition to the task force, the NSPE also has a special interest group called Professional Engineers in Construction as well as a Young Engineers Advisory Council. This group, which is comprised of engineers 35 years old and younger, offers educational seminars and activities geared toward younger engineers. Many times, these events involve bringing in more experienced engineers to talk about their careers and experiences, Ober says.