Training the next civil engineers31 July 2023
Del Shannon shares his views on why he thinks we should be changing the way we educate and train our civil engineers
We need more civil engineers. I haven’t heard anyone disagree with this, but how to accomplish this has been fiercely debated. I’ll share my own ideas and look specifically at how we attract and educate our civil engineers.
First, some background. In 1985, fresh out of high school where I finished in the top 10 of my class, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and enrolled in an undergraduate civil engineering program. I was assigned a first semester of four very difficult science and math classes, none of which, in retrospect, seemed remotely related to the job function I would eventually perform. These classes did what they do to many other students and aggressively weeded me out of the program. This was reinforced by my academic advisor who did what he was trained to do and strongly suggested I look elsewhere for a career. So, I switched gears, followed my other passion of writing, and received my BA in Journalism three and a half years later.
The story may have ended there, except that I got lucky. I found a job as a marketing coordinator for a small geotechnical engineering firm and began writing their proposals. I was good at my job as we won about half of the proposals I wrote. But the real treat working there came from my time working with the engineers crafting key elements of our approach into our proposals.
This interaction sparked my curiosity and reignited my passion for understanding the many elements required for civil engineering. The numbers, calculations, and other technical parts of the work were important, but they had to be paired with non-technical skills that are just as critical for understanding the constraints, interactions, and systems that we work on. These non-technical elements are often called soft skills, but I hate that description as they are most often very, very hard to master.
Two years and several night classes at a community college later, where it was obvious the task of the instructors wasn’t to weed me out, I was accepted into the civil engineering MS program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The CU Boulder graduate civil engineering program was an entirely different experience from the undergraduate program I was weeded from. There was ample support, resources, available professors, and encouragement to complete my degree.
Always a weed
Thirty years after graduating and hundreds of projects later I’ve had an exemplary civil engineering career. I’m currently the Chief Dam Engineer for the engineering group of a large contractor, three of the projects I’ve designed and served key roles on have received national awards, I serve as the immediate past president of the US Society on Dams, I’ve written and presented engineering papers nationally and internationally, I lead and contribute to several national and international technical and non-technical committees, and – most importantly – I thoroughly enjoy my career as a civil engineer.
I will also always be a weed. I will always have been plucked from the ground and tossed aside when I was 18 and viewed as unsuitable for the profession within which I’m now thriving.
A deeply cynical answer is I was judged by academicians (not civil engineers), working for an institution that had little understanding of civil engineering organizations, who used coursework rarely used by practicing civil engineers, to quickly and inaccurately assess my abilities as insufficient. These shortcomings made it virtually impossible for them to measure my potential as a civil engineer. A less cynical answer is likely more accurate, which is instead of trying to help new civil engineering students grow, learn, thrive, and ultimately succeed, the system was set up to weed out students and there wasn’t a pause when I was tossed aside after my inability to meet the first metric I encountered.
The irony is this system of selecting and rejecting future civil engineers by using coursework intentionally designed to fail many potential students is the opposite of civil engineering. Civil engineering is a creative profession designed for successes (not failures) that uses a wide range of tools, people, approaches, perspectives, analyses, and many other skills to solve complex problems and create structures and systems that benefit society. Our work attempts to make all of society a better place and excludes no one from its use or benefit.
But there’s another, more interesting irony as well. My BA in Journalism, the byproduct of being weeded from the engineering BS program, helped create communication skills that were critical in my success as a civil engineer. When I began working as a civil engineer, I quickly learned that I could communicate far better than many of my peers, which opened a world of opportunities I hadn’t expected. I talked and listened effectively with clients, I quickly wrote clear and concise reports, I easily and clearly shared complex concepts in layman terms with our project stakeholders, I worked well with my peers, I spoke with ease in meetings and during presentations, and all these skills helped propel my career.
The paradox of my path as compared to a more traditional civil engineering route is obvious and compels me to challenge the conventional and uncreative thinking behind its current structure. We have, as a profession, done an excellent job of weeding out anyone who doesn’t pass the first and very difficult tasks we place in front of them in their teenage years. This process of exclusion has not only created a net deficit of civil engineers, but it has also created an industry of savants with only narrow abilities and skills. Unsurprisingly, the savants of our education system have produced even more savants.
Time for change?
The current way we attract and educate our civil engineers was established a century earlier and was critical for solving the problems our society faced. But how many potentially fantastic civil engineers have been chased away by excluding many who didn’t meet a narrow band of skills? Our society now faces a host of new problems unknown to the original framers of our current education system. Civil engineers designed and built individual structures that were once isolated from each other, but over time they have grown into systems of immense size.
Savants will always have trouble seeing this much larger perspective and, because of this, I believe we need to broaden the definition of what it is and what it means to be a civil engineer. The scale of the projects we work on, and the risk informed decision making approach we are adopting for dam safety, has shifted our project teams from a single engineer incorporating input from specialists to a team-based approach. And good communication skills are required to collaborate across these diverse teams.
In addition to those who are best suited to focus on specific and narrow areas of expertise, we need civil engineers who see more broadly, who can communicate well, who can champion our work, who can effectively work with a wide range of engineering disciplines, and who are passionate about helping solve the many needs of our society. This is also civil engineering and being able to solve a complex math problem as an 18-year-old is a very poor tool to identify these future engineers.
We need different tools than those we’re currently using if we are to successfully address this issue. These tools involve creating a path for the next civil engineers who fall outside of the simple definition of being “good at math.” There is much more to being a good civil engineer than solving math problems. We will always have a path for civil engineers who can solve these problems, so this remains unchanged. What’s needed now are complementary skill sets that create a well-rounded industry, rather than being narrowly focused on savant-esq technical skills.
Some colleges and universities are advertising their programs as not having a “weed out” program or “weed out” classes, and this is a fantastic first step. I believe this idea should go further and these same colleges and universities should attract future civil engineers by broadening its definition. You can be a civil engineer if solving math problems isn’t your best skill, and there’s a valuable place for you in this profession where your thoughts and ideas and abilities are welcomed.
This is the natural evolution of civil engineering and shouldn’t be resisted out of hand. Its fruition will require many more voices than mine and it’s my hope that continuing this discourse will help shape the future of the civil engineers that will follow us. The needs of our society are too large and important to ignore by simply repeating the same things we’ve always done and will require civil engineers with much broader skills to carry us forward.