Dressing for engineering success


    When I was growing up, the first of September always indicated two things—the end of summer vacation (which I regretted), and the beginning of a new school year. That’s when I’d get reacquainted with the friends I didn’t see all summer (which I enjoyed). Plus, it was the time to wear chic, new school clothes. Well, back in those days, I thought they were chic, and that wearing dressy, fashionable clothes to class was the “cat’s meow”—and important in case some attractive new girl had transferred to my school since last term.

    Not so today! Customs have greatly changed regarding everyday fashion and what can be worn in the workplace (or in school). It’s almost as if “dressing for success” has no significance. When I founded my firm in the mid-1960s, everyone in all the offices around—ours and our clients included—wore a suit and tie or business dress. Now, the dress code has gone even beyond “casual Friday.” People are informally attired every day, except for some bankers, stockbrokers, and lawyers. Even more telling is how informally (and carelessly) people dress who travel on airplanes and other forms of mass transportation. No suits and ties to be seen, or only rarely. And how about the garments we see at church, plays, or the opera? It’s as if we’ve all become rock or movie stars, or part of the artsy set.

    Now, I’m no stickler about always wearing high fashion, but I do set my impressions of people by how they look and the way they’re dressed. I guess that might fall prey to “judging a book by its cover” before getting to know the real person. In any case, I believe that what you think of yourself—and your pride in your profession—is reflected in how you choose to dress.

    Recently, my good friend John Bachner (executive vice president of ASFE) was asked for guidance by a young engineer on how to succeed. Bachner responded, “The first thing you need is pride in being an engineer. Without engineering, people would still be living in mud huts and hope for the future would be bleak. If this planet is habitable 250 years from now, engineers will make it happen. Along with having pride, you need to encourage fellow engineers to develop more self-esteem.”

    He then said, “Find some type of community activity to demonstrate who you are and what engineers can do. Also address every group you can, starting with kids, to let them know how great it is (and can be) to be an engineer. The more you do this, the more you’ll realize the truth of what you’re saying—and how wonderful engineering can be.”

    Good advice, not only for up-and-coming engineers, but for all of us.

    So how does one exude pride and develop self-esteem? To start with, we need to remember that we come across to others in the same way we feel about ourselves. If we feel significant and dress and act accordingly, others easily read that about us. Something as basic as having good table manners, etiquette, and ethics is also telling of who we are, and whether we’re professional enough to deserve respect and high regard.

    Personal pride and self-esteem can come from understanding your importance to your firm and how creative and innovative you are in designing structures, complex or simple. It also comes from knowing you belong to a noble profession that has greatly contributed—and will continue to contribute—to the betterment of this country and civilization. And to get a full grasp of this, you need to know something about the history of the profession and those who preceded you to make it what it is today. If you haven’t studied its history and legends, resolve to do so, sooner rather than later. There are many good books that can be of assistance in this area, such as Engineers of Dreams (Petroski), The Tower and the Bridge (Billington), Engineering Legends (Weingardt), and The Great Bridge (McCullough).

    Now, back to how you look and dress. Obviously, one can dress too formally for any occasion. For instance, you don’t wear a tuxedo or formal gown to a baseball or football game or a picnic. But dressing well—not flashy, but fashionably—for work, airline travel, meeting with your minister or your children’s principal, and so on, is rarely a bad idea. When you do, it gives the impression that you think positively about yourself and your profession. How can you have pride in yourself or your work, or have self-esteem being an engineer, if you don’t dress suitably, like people used to do on the first day of school?

    If you’ve never studied or been coached on how to dress well for success, I suggest you do so the first chance you get. And after that, you can even sign up to take ballroom dance lessons!

    Richard Weingardt, P.E., is CEO and chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc., a Denver-based structural engineering firm. He can be reached via e-mail at rweingardt@gostructural.com.