Engineering better communicators

In his editorial “Engineering better engineers,” published in the January 2010 issue of CE News, John Bachner commented on how a lack of innovation has resulted in engineering services becoming commodities. Bachner’s reasoning was essentially based on a three-step premise: 1) engineers often demonstrate a lack of leadership, which leads to 2) engineers tending to be risk-averse, and finally resulting in 3) engineering work product being considered little more than a commodity.

The oft-repeated line in the editorial, which Bachner wrote with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, is to “blame the lawyers” for civil engineers’ troubles. Unfortunately, that is exactly what occurs when a construction project dispute boils over into litigation. Be that as it may, Bachner’s true sentiments, I suspect, echo what many baby boomers are saying to the generations that follow behind them: “Why don’t you take responsibility for your own actions?” Or, as the final line of the editorial aptly states: “Blame the engineers.”

Managing risk, and ultimately pushing the innovation envelope, requires engineers to be more than just worker bees — they must become leaders. Moreover, leadership is demonstrated in many ways. But the skill that is inextricably tied to leadership is communication.

Risk management is often thought of as obtaining sufficient insurance coverage or developing a comprehensive safety program. Indeed, the riskiest behavior practiced by civil engineers — where their lack of leadership is most evident — is in their inability to properly communicate in writing their ideas, thoughts, and opinions to the various stakeholders of a construction project.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which has proposed requiring a broader education for student engineers, recently published the second edition of its Body of Knowledge (BOK2), in which its sets forth 24 outcomes students are expected to attain while acquiring their civil engineering education. The outcomes are separated into three broad categories: foundational, technical, and professional. Attaining these outcomes to the level suggested by the BOK2 provides the range and depth of education civil engineering students need.

Of particular interest in the professional category is “Outcome 20: Leadership,” which addresses the need for civil engineers to demonstrate the qualities necessary in a leader, such as initiative, competence, and communication skills. “Outcome 16: Communication” states that since civil engineers must communicate effectively with technical and non-technical individuals, students must master the fundamentals of communication, including writing.

It is imperative that the industry move beyond the point of complaining about the lack of writing abilities of recent civil engineering graduates. Furthermore, industry practitioners must commit to sending the message to students that their lack of writing skills places their employers at serious risk.

Below are a few suggestions to industry practitioners for potential opportunities to awaken civil engineering students to the necessity of enhancing an essential professional skill.

  • As part of the interview process for a civil engineering summer internship, require candidates to provide contemporaneous writing samples (not just a sample from a previous class assignment).
  • One of the job responsibilities for interns is to prepare various internal, and if possible, external documents. Moreover, to strongly emphasize the importance of well-written documents, direct supervisors should critically review and comment on interns’ work product at weekly meetings.
  • When guest lecturing or speaking at student association meetings, practitioners should impress upon the students how important it is to their careers and their professional skill sets for them to develop and enhance their ability to write. Handing out and contrasting samples of poorly written and well-written reports or memos is a useful technique and brings home the concept of the risks related to poor writing.
  • When serving on civil engineering program advisory boards, practitioners should insist that the curriculums include significant and relevant writing assignments for as many courses as possible.

Bachner nailed it — we need to “engineer better engineers.” A good start is for today’s civil engineering leaders to impress upon the next generation that true risk management begins with the ability to create documents that are clear, concise, and complete. When poor writing creates or exacerbates project disputes, civil engineers should not seek to place the blame on lawyers. Rather, they should look at the one thing that will reveal the true culprit: a mirror.

John V. Tocco, J.D., is an assistant professor at Lawrence Technological University, Department of Civil Engineering. He can be contacted at

Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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