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Teaching the next generation

As this tumultuous year comes to a close, we have an opportunity to reflect on the past and anticipate what the future may bring. We hope that the year was busy enough that a vacation is a welcome relief. As the economic reports indicate, more than a few may find themselves on permanent vacation regardless of everyone’s best hopes. I took the opportunity to look back at several exchanges during the last two years and noticed an interesting trend. While I have addressed a range of topics in this space—from project management to business strategy to communication—one subject stood out as attracting the most lively responses: education of the next generation of engineers.

The reactions I have seen in my own inbox and elsewhere in print come down generally split between the advantages of higher education for professional licensure versus the advantages of getting graduates out into the "real world" to experience actual projects and see business in action. While the opinions vary, it seems safe to say that most are strongly held. Everyone seems to have a ready answer and justification for their beliefs. Curiously, the topic of management does not seem to warrant quite the same degree of passion. While management practices vary, few seem to have any strong feeling about how business should be conducted. In other words, while we feel the need to speak up when discussing how others should educate our future employees, we seem hesitant when it comes to suggesting how others should run their own companies. But is this really the right attitude?

Should we be considering the larger engineering community and how it is perceived by the public and those future graduates whom we care so much about? Assuming that there are indeed several sound principles by which businesses can be effective, are we not obligated to ensure that as many managers as possible are provided the tools to be as successful as possible? To be sure, every firm strives to remain competitive, and each has its own means and methods. But basic financial and project management is merely the price of admission, much as a basic engineering education simply gets one into that first job. It seems that we as an industry have at least as much a duty to educate those who will "graduate" to management and leadership roles.

On its face, this contradiction seems somewhat logical. Individually, we may bristle at the thought that we might not be able to manage our own affairs. We therefore are sensitive to criticizing others who do not manage as we would. However, there are clearly several good business practices, just as there are an infinite number of mistakes that can be made. It need not be a value judgment or a question of character, but it is worth considering that by not promoting good business, we run the risk of alienating the more entrepreneurial generation that is closely following on our heels.

I believe that students and recent graduates are just as bright and have more of an aptitude for business than we older folks often give them credit for. They will expect that their employers will be able to teach them management skills that often are not available in school. If we don’t equip today’s engineers with the knowledge they need, there will be nothing to transfer, except through "hard knocks" and missed opportunities. That is not the way to sustain an industry.

I hope that the coming year brings more prosperity for us all, and look forward to hearing everyone’s ideas on ways we might improve ourselves for the benefit of future engineers.

Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Billings, Mont.

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@zweigwhite.com.