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ReEngineering the Engineer: Patience Is a Virtue

Douglas Fitzpatrick on December 10, 2018 - in Articles, Column

My dad passed away about a year and a half ago. Being the oldest of three children, it was my task to help put together the eulogy for the service. I knew I wouldn’t be the one reading it (those types of potentially emotional talks are not in my repertoire), but I wanted to capture some of the things our family remembered about him. I ended up soliciting the grandkids (and my two siblings), asking them what one thing they remembered most about their grandfather. Fortunately, there was plenty of material to work with.

My main memory was him helping me with math, science and physics homework in high school. He was also an engineer and enjoyed solving the homework problems almost as much as I did. But he never gave me the answer—he always made me figure it out on my own. When I struggled with the answer, his stock advice was always the same: “units.”

Sure enough, with a little bit of investigation, the error of my ways was usually rooted in a simple problem of getting the units correct in an equation. Did I find it frustrating he didn’t just give me the answer or point to the real problem? You bet! There was always more homework, and I just wanted to move on to the next thing. Did I want to give up sometimes? Yup; but I didn’t, and he hung in there with me.

As a structural engineer, that little piece of advice has served me well through the years. I can’t count the number of times I’ve caught myself thinking through the “units” thing in everything I do. In fact, it made enough of an impression on me that I passed that nugget of wisdom onto my two daughters (and yes, they hated it too).

Supply and Demand

However, there was more to my dad’s little reminder about “units,” and it has become evident as we struggle to grow the firm. Since I started my firm, I can’t think of a time when there was an equal balance of labor supply and demand. There has not been a time when you could find engineers when you needed them to grow. There has been a glut of experienced talent … or no one.

As a result, we’ve been looking more to recent graduates to fill our needs, and now we’ve gotten to the point where we really need immediate help. The market has been in short supply for quite a while, and our workload continues to grow. We really need an experienced engineer to come in, take a project by the horns and just “do it and only talk to me when you have a problem.”

That just can’t happen with young engineers. There’s a lot more to designing buildings than just “book smarts.” Good grades, while important, don’t translate into “do it” overnight. And, lest we forget, we all started that way once, even if it was a really long time ago. Yes, times are different now, but when we graduated, we knew no more about buildings than our current young graduates, perhaps even less.

The Real Lesson

When you’re the person responsible for orchestrating the workload, it’s difficult to not get impatient. And sometimes it’s impossible to not lay awake at night trying to figure out how to meet our ever-increasing demands with a vacuum of experienced talent. And then, one night, it dawned on me.

Dad’s real secret wasn’t “units”; it was patience. Even when I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing, he was there to help shepherd me through the tough spots to better prepare me for the next lesson: one step builds on the next. That’s exactly what we need to be doing with our young engineers. Yes, it can be frustrating sometimes; there are always deadlines. But we owe them the same patience someone shared with us in the beginning of our careers. The market is tight enough as it is. To scare off another wave of potential engineers because they discover the engineering community won’t help them along would be a disgrace.

So, we have a challenge, and engineers love challenges. We have to (re)figure out how to bring our young engineers along. It’s been a crazy 15 years of understanding the market for talent. For me, it can’t be a one-person effort. The more engineers we have in the office helping the young engineers along, the sooner they can become productive and start returning the favor to the next wave. It’s the only way we can survive and grow.

Thanks, dad.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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