Advice For Young Engineers: Learn In The Field, Not Just Behind A Desk
Mariners learn a lot from their experiences in the field that can’t be taught.
The same is true for engineers, and having done both jobs, I appreciate the importance and value of hands-on experience.
Our increasingly connected world means today’s engineers can operate from an office with a world of information at their fingertips. But direct experience is a valuable learning tool. I advise young engineers to leave their desks, speak to customers and spend time getting to know the inner workings of the engineering projects they encounter. Fieldwork is a richly rewarding experience.
As a child, I was always playing with Lego building blocks. I loved putting them together to see how they fit, which explains why a career in engineering was an appropriate path for me.
My father was a harbor pilot at the Port of Boston, and I shared his love of the sea. I used to spend hours building round-bottomed tugboats out of square plastic blocks, which is an engineering challenge in itself.
My upbringing on the ocean influenced my decision to study at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. While my family expected me to follow in Dad’s footsteps, I decided on a different course and chose to become a licensed power plant engineer.
Everything pointed to spending a life at sea, yet my career path was actually laid on solid ground. My first job was working as a field engineer with marine and industrial gas turbines. It was an opportunity to join a large company and work with my hands to learn about gas turbines; this proved to be a pivotal decision for the future.
I sensed back then that the path to success started with getting my fingernails dirty, so to speak, and I was excited about the prospect of doing fieldwork. But it was much later that I appreciated the true value of those early experiences operating power plants, connecting the theoretical side of engineering and design with its practical application to real-world projects.
Practical experience offers one of the highest returns on investment that you can make in your career. Everyone respects and appreciates engineers with actual field experience.
Working in the field gave me a crash course in systems problem-solving, knowing what to do when machines break down, when controls or components fail, how to interact with people and how to keep a cool head in a high-pressure environment.
These insights proved invaluable when I moved to an office-based customer service role, which involved regular collaboration with field service engineers to resolve customer issues. My knowledge and practical field experience helped us find new ways to overcome challenges on different projects, instead of relying on narrowly defined textbook solutions. It also earned respect from my colleagues, as an experience-based viewpoint is often regarded as highly credible.
Today, as I work with other senior executives to make decisions that involve assessing risk levels, my field operations and maintenance experience allow me to fully understand those risks and add a distinct perspective to the decision-making process. Rarely a day goes by that I am not drawing on my early experiences. That knowledge is with you forever.
When starting out, young engineers need to be patient, although this can be a difficult lesson to learn. It takes time to develop the skills and knowledge needed to do a job professionally, but practical experience offers one of the highest returns on investment that you can make in your career. Everyone respects and appreciates engineers with actual field experience.
I was advised by a senior colleague to use the ‘three Hs’ approach to professional development: head, heart and hands. It’s sound advice that still holds true today. Use your head to learn all that you can and develop the mental aptitude to make the right decisions; your heart to be compassionate, understand people and demonstrate leadership competence; and your hands to gain practical experience and learn from mistakes. But you don’t have to do it alone as others will help you on your journey.
Finding a mentor can help young people benefit from the experience of senior colleagues. It’s a great idea for new engineers to find someone they respect and feel comfortable asking for advice, and do it straightaway. Tapping into that experience can help support and guide your career.
It can be tough for today’s young engineers to break from office life or build networks while working remotely. Not everyone’s life situation enables them to do fieldwork, but that shouldn’t stop you getting involved. Reach out to your manager to explore fieldwork opportunities at an operating plant or construction site, and arrive ready to contribute wherever you’re needed.
A rotation in the field during construction or commissioning is a great and worthwhile opportunity for somebody who’s never experienced it.