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ReEngineering the Engineer: Learning Is a Two-Way Street

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 30, 2021 - in Articles, Column

My days seem to be much busier and seemingly more complicated through this whole COVID thing. I find myself working through emails and phone calls during the day, and using nights and weekends to keep up with my own projects—not healthy, really, but it’s where I’m finding myself. It has become increasingly difficult to find time to think it through and figure a way out. Yet every now and then, I get this nagging feeling something isn’t right.

Through COVID, I’ve always been a bit concerned about our two young engineers. They really weren’t at a place in their careers where they were able to take on projects by themselves yet. Almost all the projects we were receiving—large or small—were messy with very fast schedules. I didn’t see how I could supervise those engineers through any of the projects and still meet the schedules. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

However, we started some prototype work last year that looked like something the two of them could handle. We spent some time late last year walking through the basics of the design and made a checklist of all the things that needed to be checked as they went through each new location.


All this seemed to be good until one of them came to me last week and said he had taken another job because I “hadn’t been able to provide enough coaching and teaching to advance their career the way he felt it should be.” Ouch.

Did I feel bad? Yes. Was it my fault? Certainly some of it. Did I think I had done everything I could to provide him with the tools to learn? I guess not. For that, I was disappointed in myself. It’s rarely a good feeling when someone leaves. There’s a lot of knowledge lost when that happens.

Some Important Backstory

This engineer had interned with us several years ago, and I planned to offer him a job when he got out of school. However, he decided to take a position in a different town to be closer to family. I get that. That work was “engineering related,” but not specifically building design.

About a year and a half later, he left that job and went to work for a nonprofit. That stint lasted about five years, and there was very little engineering at all at the nonprofit. About a year and a half ago, he contacted me out of the blue and expressed a desire to get back into real engineering and make it his career.

What I didn’t realize was that 6 to seven years of not even cracking open an engineering book or performing any calculations for even the simplest of things would result in a total loss of knowledge. It became obvious that even the simplest things such as calculating the moment capacity of a steel member or designing a concrete beam for shear or understanding the difference between LRFD and ASD were challenging.

Given our workload and the amount of things I was juggling, I found myself struggling to find things that were simple enough to explain, yet provide this engineer with enough to do to stay busy for a while. Obviously, the prototype work was too little, too late.

Takes Two to Tango

However, as I reflected on how this went sideways, I realized it wasn’t just my fault. To help this engineer fill the void in knowledge, I had encouraged him to revisit/reread the AISC, ACI and IBC/ASCE 7 codes. I made it very clear the point wasn’t to memorize everything; nobody does that.

But he should familiarize himself with everything in these resources so as new things come up in his career, he would remember where he could go to get guidance. Boring? Unfortunately. Necessary? Absolutely. Everything we do every day revolves around those references. Looking back, I thought it was odd someone could read through all of that and not have any questions—not a single one.

As the new year started, we landed a couple tilt-up panel layout drawing projects. Although that work doesn’t really require engineering, the next logical step would be to move that experience into the engineering of the panels. So as we discussed all the “ins and outs” of the detailing piece, I gave this young engineer a really good book about the engineering piece of tilt-up and told him to read it.

About a week later, I asked if he had read the book: “skimmed it” was the answer. And then it hit me. This engineer was willing to learn new things, but only as long as someone was spoon-feeding him everything. Well, guess what? Life doesn’t work that way. In college, you have the luxury of sitting in a classroom while someone lectures you for 45 minutes to an hour, then go home, do some homework, and repeat tomorrow.

In real life, you have to figure things out on your own. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t run into something I’m unfamiliar with. And there’s rarely someone there to just give you the answer. You take what you know and try to apply it to this new “thing,” get some advice from someone else in the office, read a little extra on your own, etc. But you have to make an effort on your own.

Right or wrong, I know I’m much more willing to help someone when I can tell they’ve actually spent some time trying to learn or wrestle with something on their own. They just need some coaching to get them back on the road and out of the weeds. That’s really our jobs as older engineers. And, honestly, I think you understand things better when you try to learn lessons on your own rather than have someone spoon-feed you answers.


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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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