By Wayne Swafford

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped many aspects of our industry, including professional development. Once the pandemic struck, firms around the country began canceling or postponing in-person training programs. According to the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, almost 50 percent of in-person programs were postponed or canceled in North America in the first three months of the pandemic. Professional organizations and societies canceled/delayed seminars, conferences, and technical workshops, or shifted them online. This means opportunities to meet and network with mentors and experts in person have reduced. Although many professional development opportunities are now offered virtually, engineers are missing the engagement that comes with face-to-face collaboration.

Our own internal survey shows that collaboration and skills development are two of the top three challenges employees face because of remote work. Given this scenario, engineers at all levels and ages may wonder what implications this will have on their career prospects and development. How can they continue developing their knowledge, skills and abilities – three important aspects of their career? Our industry relies on smart professionals who not only have the knowledge and skills to solve problems but also the emotional abilities to work effectively with people. The steps below offer some guidance:

Develop Your Technical Skills: According to Upwork, Americans telecommuting due to the pandemic are saving nearly 50 minutes per day. Take advantage of this extra time to self-study and deepen skills in your specific area of expertise, as well as broaden skills in other technical areas. Be proactive and reach out to experts within your firm to ask questions about concepts and equations that you don’t fully understand. Sign up for an online educational webinar (several of them are free now). Read technical magazines and journals to stay on top of the latest industry trends. Watch videos and listen to podcasts in your areas of interest. Most importantly, as you learn these skills, share them with your team and colleagues throughout your firm.

Improve Your Soft Skills: This is a critical area of development for engineers to become well-rounded. Traditionally, engineering education focuses on facts, figures, calculations and the like. But once you have the facts and figures, how do you communicate them, so people can understand and buy into your ideas? According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 State of the Workplace Report, communication is one of the top three underdeveloped soft skills among professionals. With most employees working remotely during the pandemic, written and verbal communication is even more important. How you say something is more important than what you say. Check your tone while e-mailing, chatting or speaking on virtual calls. Use two-way video capability on calls and pay attention to other participants’ facial expressions and body language. Learn how to increase your emotional intelligence by reading books, articles, and watching videos. Use this time to polish your verbal and written communication skills by practicing delivering presentations and writing articles.

Become More Involved in Professional Organizations: Professional organizations have also adapted to the pandemic and continue to provide opportunities for remote learning, such as virtual seminars, conferences, short courses, and more. Organizations such as the American Water Works Association and American Society of Civil Engineers offer a great platform for professionals at all career stages. Take an active role in these organizations’ national and local chapters and volunteer for their professional committees. Attend virtual conferences and workshops offered by these organizations and reach out and ask follow-up questions after presentations. Interact with attendees during breakout or chat sessions. Professional networking luncheons are not likely to happen soon, so it is important to be more proactive and targeted in your approach. By taking advantage of the tools, tips, and resources offered by these organizations, engineers can gain the valuable knowledge and exposure needed for career advancement.

Request Feedback from Your Supervisor: This is an important time to request regular feedback from supervisors regarding your professional development. Prepare for these meetings by creating an outline of your objectives. Talk about new roles and responsibilities you wish to partake. Go above and beyond your usual commitments. More importantly, put this feedback into action. This will pay off in the future.

Professional development is a lifelong quest. Even during this pandemic, it is critical that engineers stay motivated, continue to enhance their knowledge, skills and abilities, and increase their value to their firm and the industry. By doing so, they can not only grow their careers but also play a big part in shaping the industry’s future.


Wayne Swafford, P.E., is the President of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a national planning, engineering and program management firm. He can be reached at wayneSwafford@lan-inc.com.

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