Who Will the New Generation of Engineers Follow?
The need to inspire through meaning.

By: Keivan Rafie, P.Eng., M.Eng., PMP, ENV SP, CDT
Hatch Ltd.

Meaning in What We Do

A young boy was visiting a rural village with his father, a chief engineer who was looking at the ongoing site works for a water conveyance project that would provide nearby towns and villages with clean water. Water that wasn’t brown. Water that was safe. As the boy was being impressed by the scale of the engineering and construction activities, he noticed a village member ask his father if he and other staff on the job could close the site for one day. The villager offered for some locals to accompany them on a tour of the nearby towns so they can show their appreciation of their hard work on behalf of the community in their own way. His father replied, “Thank you. I’m sure the other staff and I would enjoy that a lot; but, nothing makes us happier than seeing your community provided with clean water even a day sooner. You’ve waited long enough.” That boy was inspired and determined to become an engineer from that moment. He saw the meaning achieved through engineering.

More than Salaries and Titles

New engineering graduates spend years preparing to achieve what they are passionate about and making a difference in society. They also understand they will spend around a third of each working day interacting with coworkers and managers. For some, this is more than they have with family and friends.

The new generation of engineers understands that choosing a firm or team to work with is as important as choosing a close friend or partner. They seek a team that shares their core personal ideals and social values and understands what they stand for. They seek leaders who prioritize career development and personal growth not just with paycheques – but with values and decisions.

In the past two decades, I have seen many astounded employers who have lost engineering staff to other companies — some  worryingly, to other industries.  Of course, some firms with high-profile projects offering appealing positions and exciting salaries can attract and keep new hires for the short term. But these may not be enough to keep those hires committed to stay when companies go through slow periods or when they cannot offer expected salary increases.

If the inducements we give employees to stay put are the ones other well-managed companies can give, i.e., a paycheque and title, then there is no reason for younger staff not to explore other options when available. It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with providing incentives for retention. The danger is that they work so well in the short term that many employers and employees lose sight of the bigger picture.

When it comes to being deeply devoted or passionate about a company’s long-term vision and future, something more than financial incentives is needed to differentiate the company from other employers. That something is meaning and purpose.

New generation engineers generally need to have a purpose. Otherwise, they may feel lost. When we ask people why they work, among the first responses are typically to ‘pay the rent and bills’ or ‘put food on the table’. Everyone knows though that in addition to financial security, work needs to provide other benefits, such as opportunities to learn new skills, a chance to engage with others as social beings, the pride in accomplishment, and most importantly, being identified with a meaningful purpose.

Good Answers. Wrong questions.

Most companies recognize that their financial and technical success depends on encouraging employees to perform well in terms of their accountability, flexibility and responsiveness. These important factors shape the challenges that companies can undertake and how well they perform. Such demands generate a lot of interest in finding out what type of salary, title and benefit stimulates the new workforce to perform better in particular areas.

There is also a vast amount of literature on what companies can do or what type of management style attracts the best talent in a competitive market. Yet much of the workforce still does not consider what it does as its dream job, and if asked how it feels about its role in the company, very few will respond passionately or state that “there is no other place I would rather be”. Unfortunately, we may have gathered very good answers to the wrong questions.

Leaders for a New Generation

The topic of leadership generates shelves and shelves of books. Most leadership books are about management efficiency, office politics, how to impress your boss, or organizational psychology at best, disguised under different leadership keywords. But there is one and only one standard by which individuals or organizations can be considered as ‘leaders’: to have followers. That is because we follow those who have inspired us. We follow not because we need to, but because we want to. We follow to be better and to add meaning to what we do day in and day out. We follow those who would unconditionally have our backs when needed. We are happy to help them with anything only because we know they will do the same for us when the time comes.

The new generation of engineers understands the need for competence to tackle unprecedented global challenges. They also know they have options as to which industry to work in and which firm to work for. Of course, a good salary and benefits are basic requirements, but with so many companies around that can provide a fair compensation package, a reasonable paycheque and title may not be sufficiently enticing. Therefore, we need to start asking better questions to understand what young engineers value. For example, see if you’ve asked and known the answers to these:

  • What gets them out of bed every morning and makes them feel they have an exciting, meaningful job?
  • What makes them feel they have a future in the company and industry they work for?
  • Knowing their skills and capabilities, where do you see them ten years from now?
  • Are you mentoring them for what they need to do several years from now by exposing them to those communications and experiences any time you could?
  • What about their work and the projects that make them and their families proud and give them a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves?
  • How are is their work making a difference to society and do they go to bed knowing they have improved the lives of their community, even by a little?

To find the right answers to questions like these, we need to embrace the meaning of what we do and believe in the vision that inspired us.

Start with Why

If a firm’s president and other senior managers decided to come up with an impactful message to motivate staff and show how exceptional the company was in the eyes of clients and the public, they would have missed the point of defining a company’s vision. This type of corporate vision (if we can call it that) is focused on the ‘”what” and the “how”, not the “why”.

In reality, what we are and how we do things should only serve as proof of our vision, not the vision itself. If our vision is authentic, it will inspire people to do everything through the guiding principles required to reach that goal. A true vision is usually ‘born’ (not made) by the founders of any firm and then evolves to something more through inspiration by the next generation of employees who join the cause. A true vision has the ‘why’.

When a company’s vision can be ‘believed’ and is capable of giving meaning to employees’ lives, many other things happen naturally. We see that everyone working around us becomes a leader to inspire others who would follow and, at the same time, results in happier work life, higher motivation, and a sense of purpose and teamwork to achieve what the whole team believes in.

Of course, any company that operates in such an inspiring environment (as a byproduct) will do better in servicing its clients, winning new projects, and hiring exceptional staff who remain loyal to the company for reasons other than salary and title. These inspired employees will then prove their loyalty to the shared values they believe in — the ‘why’ — by ‘what’ they do and ‘how’ they do it. These motivated individuals will then become a source of inspiration for other newly hired employees. From there, every decision, every product, and every communication becomes tangible evidence of what they are inspired by.

Many firms in the engineering and consulting world can check the same ‘what’ box (doing the same type of work and having the same experience), many of them also check all the necessary ‘how’ boxes (the best practices and expected ethical and professional standards). Firms with an inspiring vision have the ‘why’ that causes young engineers to choose to follow them.

When the company’s cause inspires young engineers, the decision to join and remain with the group is now more about who they are and less about the company they work for.

To lead this generation, we need to be clear and authentic about the meaning and purpose of what we do; then, everything we do, we do in a way that progresses that ultimate goal. There is no surprise that in such an environment, our actions and words will always be consistent, and the quality of our work becomes a consequence of the direction in which we are heading, not the goal itself.

Keivan Rafie is the Deputy Regional Director – Tunnels at Hatch Ltd. In Vancouver, British Columbia. Keivan has worked on tunnel, mining and ground improvement projects since 2001. He graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mining Engineering and completed a Master’s of Science degree in both Tunneling and Project Management. Keivan is an ardent supporter of engaging, encouraging and developing young engineering professionals. As a member of NASTT, Keivan has served on the NASTT No-Dig Show Technical Program Committee and on the Outstanding Paper Judges Panel.