With the continuing concern over the future of engineering education, there is a greater need than ever to rethink the hiring practices of typical engineering firms. Whether or not there is an overall, worldwide shortage of engineering graduates, recent data in the United States does point to declines in engineering enrollment and subsequent graduation. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we are faced with the fact that regardless of the level of outreach to elementary and high school students, there is a gap in engineering graduates that must be addressed.
When firms set out to hire young talent, they often seek out civil engineering graduates or interns. If those desirable individuals become scarcer, our industry must develop methods of hiring (and retaining) talent that may have the right skills and desire, even if they don’t graduate with the right degree. This, in turn, requires adjusting our assumptions about the skills and background that particular prospects may have when they enter the door. Not only must our recruitment efforts expand to reach a more diverse audience, but our training must become more versatile to accommodate those who may not have the same background as the "typical" engineering graduate. Further, job descriptions may need to be rewritten to take advantage of attributes that may not necessarily accompany such a typical degree.
One way to approach this is to review the past several years’ worth of industry discourse regarding the desired traits of a true engineering graduate and future professional. The one-stop shop for this information is the ASCE Body of Knowledge, which is currently being reviewed and updated to more clearly define the desired outcomes of civil engineering education and experience. For the firm that needs to hire someone now, however, it is wise to step back from the outcomes as applied to the civil field, and use them to develop a well-rounded job description.
For instance, consider that the first 11 outcomes are derived from ABET standards, which are not unique to civil engineering, but to a broader engineering population. In theory, most university graduates will have the abilities to communicate orally and in writing, grasp fundamentals of math and science, work with a multi-disciplinary team, identify and solve problems, and apply various theoretical concepts to real-world issues. Then, to build on these traits, four additional outcomes were developed that focused on desired characteristics of civil engineers in particular. These outcomes flesh out the more detailed technical, project management, public policy, business, and leadership skills that are required of modern civil engineers.
It is clear that even a true civil engineering graduate will only have a portion of the ideal skills and background when hired. An illustrative question to ask is, "Is it any more beneficial to have someone that has strong technical skills but weak project management skills rather than vice versa?" Just as civil engineers are encouraged to learn and expand their skill base (to include such topics as management and accounting), is it not also conceivable that a business or economics graduate could learn the rudiments of engineering enough to become a useful part of an engineering team?
Typically, we focus on engineering graduates as a group, and seek out those that have a strong background in other topics to create a well-rounded team. In a time of scarcity, we need to use our collective creativity to examine how non-engineering graduates can contribute to the success of the firm with their own experiences and insights. Civil engineering has become such an inherently multi-disciplinary industry that there is more than enough room for such individuals to enhance a firm’s ability to work with a wide variety of projects and clients. It is our job to step out of our archetypal recruiting methods to court those non-traditional prospects.
Jason Burke works for Allied Engineering (www.alliedengineering.com) in Bozeman, Mont.
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