“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” Margaret Fuller
I’ve always been fascinated with the Queen’s Guard. My childhood cartoons were full of stoic soldiers in comically large hats and bright red coats. As an adult, my appreciation is less about their wardrobe and more about their precision, professionalism and sense of duty. While many believe the Guard is for show, there only for the sake of the tourists, these men are highly trained soldiers of the British Army. They are a well-oiled machine, each person dedicated to their duty and the success of the unit. They take pride in the role they’ve devoted themselves to, but when it comes time for the Changing of the Guard, these soldiers must entrust their duty to their successors and believe that the new Guard will carry on with the same dedication and determination as the Guard that came before them.
The Generation War
Engineers have a reputation for being stubborn and arrogant. They have an answer to any question, even if it isn’t necessarily the right one. Most would rather argue their logic than admit they don’t know. If you’re an engineer and this isn’t you, congratulations, you are a rarity. That being said, those traits also make engineers great at their jobs. When it comes to these characteristics, there is no generational divide. I’ve met engineers of all ages who share these qualities, but they also share a passion for knowledge and the work that they do. So why is the baby boomer generation so reluctant to turn the reins over to their successors?
Over the past few years, millennials have developed a bad reputation. We are often described as lazy, entitled, self-obsessed narcissists. But just as it’s improper to stereotype all individuals in a race or culture by one set of characteristics, it’s wrong to define an entire generation by the choices and actions of a few. There’s a cohort of millennial engineers that is ready to step in, take the lead, and carry on the legacy that baby boomer engineers are leaving behind. We believe in the value of hard work and dedication and we want to be prepared to fill the shoes of those we are replacing.
Success is a shared goal. The older generation doesn’t want to see the failure of the organization to which they’ve dedicated their life and the younger generation doesn’t want to be at the wheel for that failure. As a member of the new generation, I’m asking for help. I’m not saying we can’t figure it out ourselves, but our predecessors have a lot to offer. So, what do we need?
Guidance and Patience
My first year working in process safety was challenging. Not the kind of challenge, though, that made me feel inadequate and ill-prepared. Instead it was the kind of challenge that drove me to learn, adjust and improve. Most of the credit for this gratifying form of challenge belongs to my colleagues. They not only tolerated my questions, they took the time to ensure that I understood their explanations. They pushed me when I needed to be pushed and offered guidance without coddling.
Engineering is a field that requires years to master, assuming that engineering is even something that can be mastered. The sort of guidance I’ve received and patience I’ve been shown are crucial to the new generation of engineers as they enter the field and begin to acquire the knowledge that would otherwise leave the workplace as the baby boomers retire. We aren’t asking to be coddled. We’re intelligent, capable and driven. We’re only asking that you remember what it was like when you were new and if you have a hand in our professional development, to grant us the level of guidance and patience you would have liked to receive. If guidance and patience were luxuries denied to you when you were developing, reverse that and be the foundation for a new generation of engineers who want to better one another and share their knowledge and expertise with those who come after them. “Trial by fire” is one way to build character, but it’s not the only way.
My very first job was in a bank. I worked as a teller while I completed my bachelor’s degree. I managed more money in a day than many people see in their lifetime. I had access to personal, confidential information. Before the job was even offered, I had to pass a background check. Even after a clean background check, my managers still had to have a great deal of trust that I was doing my job correctly and honestly. That trust was essential to my success in my role, as well as to their success as a manager. I would later learn, working as a teller manager myself, that trusting your employees is finding the fine line between trust and control.
Trust is a universal requirement in employment, regardless of the field. It is essential in engineering. Engineering is an important role, so entrusting it to another is no small feat. But eventually, whether prepared for it or not, the show will go on and a new generation will step in. So, trust us. Trust not only that we have good intentions, but that we are capable of successfully performing the jobs that have been assigned to us. Trust that we will succeed, and that if our ideas and opinions are different than yours, that they are deserving of consideration because our perspectives have value, too. Support us in our endeavors and leave your mark by leaving the next generation in a better place to do its work than you were to do yours.
Wisdom has always been a word I’ve associated with gray hair and wrinkles. For me, wisdom has been a grandpa in a rocking chair on a wrap-a-round front porch. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve learned that wisdom comes not with age, but with experience. Even now, I have wisdom that I would love to go back and share with my teenage self. I’ve learned from my experiences, which means I have wisdom to share.
Immanuel Kant said “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” Fortunately for the next generation of engineers, our predecessors have both. When it comes to science, learning never ends but our education provides us with a solid foundation. Wisdom, however, is something that can’t be read in a textbook or taught in a classroom. Wisdom must be passed down to us or acquired over time. Let me be the first to admit that our generation sometimes fails to recognize wisdom and experience. It’s our responsibility, then, to take a step back and recognize the value of the insight that more experienced engineers have to offer. We must be willing to put our pride and arrogance aside and learn from those who came before us, because the wisdom they can share will only make us better if we are receptive to it.
Lead the Way
Early in my life, I had a chance to learn an important lesson that has stayed with me: great leaders don’t tell you what to do, they show you how it’s done. This is the sort of leadership that the new generation of engineers covet. Show us how, trust that we can, and share what you know. We aren’t out to dismantle what you’ve worked for. We only want to learn, to be prepared to fill the roles that are being left to us. Give us the opportunity to succeed and you’ll be surprised at what we can accomplish. Offer us a helping hand so, when we’ve played our part and our time comes, we can turn around and offer a helping hand to the generations that come after us.