22.06.2016 : Hannah Liddell

Engineering in theory vs engineering in practice

How does the career you imagined you’d have when studying at university compare with what engineering really involves in practice?

While I was studying for my engineering degree, I formed an idea of what my career as an engineer would involve – and I’m sure most other engineering students do the same. So I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare the theory you learn at university with what engineering really involves in practice.

Theory: As an engineer, you will put into play the technical knowledge you learn at university. Applied physics and maths with perhaps a sprinkling of chemistry or computer coding. The theory goes that a geotechnical engineer’s most important skill is his or her knowledge of soil and rock mechanics; that the majority of structural design involves accommodating gravity and seismic loads; and that transport engineers spend most of their time performing traffic modelling and simulations. As a civil/airports engineer, I would occupy the majority of my time with runway inspections, defect repairs and car park design – in theory.

Practice: Technical skills are obviously imperative to the engineering profession. However, that is not to say that as an engineer you will spend most of your time putting your technical expertise into play. The skills that you require before, during and after you do anything remotely technical are generally referred to as ‘soft skills’. We all know about them, and almost everyone has them, but as we plod through our degree, we have very little realisation about just how critical these people skills will be in the workforce.

In my first month as a graduate consulting engineer, I was lucky enough to have my hands full with a variety of projects. Over this month, I would estimate that I spent 20% of my time focused on technical design and analysis. The remaining 80% was spent in meetings, on the phone, or exchanging emails with clients, contractors and colleagues. This meant that for 80% of my work, I didn’t actually apply anything that I learnt during lectures.

However, I’m not saying university didn’t help prepare me for that 80%. After all, not all our time spent at university is spent studying! In fact, I would hazard a guess that the majority of us developed a number of the soft skills required as an engineer in other aspects of university life. Many of the ‘people skills’ would have been learnt playing team sports, being part of various extra-curricular clubs and organisations or working on group assignments.

My first month at Beca was unexpectedly full to bursting point with professional networking events, both within Beca and industry-wide. But after some reflection, I realised that these events are just as career-enriching as any technical workshop can be. Strong interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate your ideas clearly and effectively are pivotal to being a successful engineer. The world’s best design wouldn’t survive the first screening if no one could understand the concept put forward. Nor would a client be inclined to award you with further projects if they had not enjoyed working alongside you.
These social events are all building blocks to learning one of the most important aspects of engineering - teamwork.

Teamwork underpins every successful engineering project, and a lack of teamwork can often be attributed to an unsuccessful project’s downfall. The ability to work in synergy with clients, contractors and fellow engineers is and will always be the most important skill, soft or otherwise, that an engineer can have in their toolkit. Would you agree?nnah Liddell

About the Author

Hannah Liddell

Civil Engineer

Hannah is a graduate in our Infrastructure team based in Wellington. She graduated as a Senior Scholar, with a first class honours degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Canterbury. Hannah is currently working on capital projects for Wellington Airport as well as the on-going maintenance of their airfield infrastructure.

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