08.10.2015 : Dan Stevens

Mentoring the next generation of engineers

Why we should consider it a privilege to mentor and to pass on what we have learned to the next generation of engineers.

In many areas of engineering there is an aging workforce and organisations are struggling to recruit new and retain existing staff. The changing face of engineering and the challenges we face in attracting, developing and retaining the next generation of engineers is becoming a reality. How have things changed over the last 30 years since I started work and how can we adapt to meet this challenge? When I started work back in 1983, a career in engineering, particularly in the public sector was seen as a stable and long term choice. It presented an opportunity to put down roots, and many considered it a ‘job for life’.

However, this is not the case today. Consultancies are under pressure to be lean and efficient as costs are driven down and constant pressure on government and council organisations has resulted in an uncertain future. Often there is pressure to downsize, and many organisations have outsourced or off-shored some tasks.

Job for life?

Interestingly, the new generation may not be seeking such long term certainty and stability. Perhaps as a result of a fast changing world, they seem to be not only ready for change but actively seeking and embracing it. We therefore need a new way to attract young people into the profession and to encourage them to stay, and to drive engineering forward into a new era of sustainable, social and economic development.

It is important to understand what drives the latest generation of engineers and what they expect from prospective employers.

A few common observations are that they:

  • Look beyond today and want to be part of creating a better tomorrow
  • Are fascinated by and embrace advances in technology
  • Can sometimes appear to be impatient and demanding
  • Are an Internet generation that loves to share information quickly
  • Want adequate support but also expect be actively involved in guiding their career direction and progression.

So our challenge is really to recognise these traits and understand how best to harness their energy, motivation and commitment.


The current generation of school leavers and tertiary education graduates are motivated in different ways and they are often driven by how they can make a difference to current and future generations, and at its heart this is what engineering is all about. When recruiting young staff, it is important to discuss the career development path and support that they can expect if they join your organisation. Often they will have several offers on the table and it is important that they look beyond the dollars on offer and weigh up which offer will present them with the best support and ultimately the better opportunity to develop their career in the medium to long term.

We also need to be open to gender and ethnic diversity if we are to maximise the talent pool available. Rightly or wrongly some engineering careers, particularly in Public Works engineering, have had an image of being a ‘middle-aged man's profession’. We need to dispel that myth and make every effort to create a friendly, balanced and diverse workplace if we are to actively engage with a wider pool of people.

Staff Development and Retention

On-going training, development and recognition of achievement are vital if we are to demonstrate to staff that we are keen to invest in their long-term future. Staff should feel that they are valued however long they have been with an organisation.

We also need to recognise the need to develop strong leadership within our organisations and promote the personal growth of our current and future leaders. This is advanced by setting up formal and informal mentoring programmes and other arrangements to help experienced staff support their younger colleagues’ development through to chartered status where appropriate.

We should also recognise the importance of meaningful annual Personal Development and Performance Reviews, where the manager and staff member jointly set goals and objectives, commit to working towards them and review progress together regularly during the year.

Mentoring and Succession Planning

Young engineers need to feel that senior staff take the time to mentor and invest in their career development. This leads to greater confidence and often encourages them to put their hand up for other challenging assignments, perhaps to take a lead on authoring a report, writing a bid document or presenting the results of a project to clients or councillors.

Succession planning is a way to understand the key roles in an organisations’ structure. One way to structure a succession plan is to identify the key role, those 'ready now' and those say ready in two to five years. Encouraging these ‘next in line’ staff to step into a role temporarily to cover for extended annual leave or if the incumbent is covering another role in a temporary capacity etc. is an opportunity to expose them to the challenges of the role and giving them an opportunity to learn and demonstrate that they are capable of stepping up into that role in the long term.

However, it is important to form a policy on whether those identified in the succession plan should be informed and effectively treated as ‘the heir apparent’. This can give confidence to staff that they have a clear career path, but equally it can lead to division and resentment if others are not handled sensitively.

Training Providers

There are a number of training providers such as the New Zealand Water and Environmental Training Academy (NZWETA) in New Zealand and the Water Industry Training Institute (WITI) in Australia, which offer a range of qualifications. In addition, many training organisations are recognising that webinars and on-line training courses have a number of advantages, particularly when combined with some classroom or preferably on-site learning and evaluation. Providing opportunities for all staff to attain further qualifications and recognition of this achievement are key to staff satisfaction and ultimately retention.

Exchanges, Secondments and Volunteering

Staff exchanges and secondments are a way that organisations can provide diversity and new challenges for staff. Ideally this would be in a different location and even a different country, perhaps for a period from say three to 12 months, learning new skills and working in a different environment. Allowing staff to take time out for volunteer work with organisations such as Engineers Without Borders or Water Aid can also provide individuals with fresh challenges and opportunities that are rewarding to them personally and professionally.

Staff recognise and appreciate the commitment employers are making by allowing them to pursue volunteer work and ultimately this encourages their ongoing loyalty to the organisation. Often this type of work is very challenging but rewarding and it provides an environment where they develop as individuals, fostering characteristics and values that will be beneficial for the organisation.

Professional Organisations

Over the last five years, professional organisations such as Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA), Water New Zealand and Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) have all invested in developing focus groups for younger members. It is encouraging to see this development and employers should make every effort to encourage their young staff to become actively involved in these groups.

IPENZ has their "Engenerate" initiative, which focuses on young professionals under the age of 30 or those that have less than eight years' work experience. Similarly, Water New Zealand has their "Rising Tide" group. ‘Young IPWEA’ in Australia is set up to support young professionals under the age of 35.

These groups undertake university visits and host networking events and there are plans to develop mentoring schemes to support the development of young professionals by linking them with established “seasoned” professionals for support and guidance rather than specifically targeting a specific goal such as CPEng qualification. Young engineers can create professional networks with their peers that will stay with them and develop further throughout their careers.

Passing the Baton

I believe that mentoring, succession planning, on-going training and professional development all have a key role in achieving a sustainable workforce. At the end of the day, we all entered engineering because at some level we wish to make a difference. To serve our communities and to create a safe and economically sustainable environment in which they can thrive. At some stage we need to pass the baton on to the next generation, and it is our duty, our responsibility and indeed our privilege to pass on what we have been taught and the knowledge we have assimilated through the years.

We can then help the next generation of engineers grow into the role and be rest assured that we have helped to create a sustainable long term workforce and that the future of engineering will be in safe hands.

This article is based on a paper presented at the IPWEA/IFME 2015 Conference.

About the Author

Dan Stevens

Business Director - Water

Dan is a Principal Environmental Engineer with over 31 years’ experience mostly in the water industry. He is a regular speaker at national and international conferences and is recognised internationally for his work in advanced asset management and hydraulic modelling. He has extensive experience leading multi-disciplinary teams on strategic asset planning projects and is also a Chartered Environmentalist and Chartered Water and Environmental Manager.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Mark Cantor · 16/10/2015 6:26:22 PM
G'day Dan,

I started my engineering cadetship with the SRA in 1981. I was mentored and I mentored many other cadets before I left. I actually had the pleasure to mentor six of the first young lady engineers. You can imagine a locomotive depot full of 400 male employees and a female cadet. It was amazing to observe, those who usually couldn't construct a sentence without five f' bombs were absolute gentlemen.

Since then I have worked in many industries including chemical, Defence, software, high speed machines, consulting and travelled the world doing it. I am now retired and have played in a few start up enterprise organisations. I would love to mentor anyone who would be interested, but I can't even give my experience away.

I think one of the main reasons behind the whole decline in engineering in this country is that thinking is literally out of fashion. The sort of thinking that requires design teams, systems engineering processes, project management that delivers +/- 3% on time, budget etc or even detailed maintenance planning is always considered too "Rolls Royce" and too costly.

This level of detailed thinking has been replaced by amazing gimmicks like "6 Sigma". Which is really a statistical term with alliteration, but I've seen a non engineer with a black belt override a room of engineers with nearly 150 years combined experience.

I think Australia as a whole needs technical managers that know how to manage big projects or development teams etc. Unfortunately the ABC show "Utopia" is the rule not the exception!