CIVIL ENGINEERING is a sought-after profession with excellent job prospects. Data provided in the report Civil Engineers in the United States* indicate that employment for civil engineers is projected to grow by 12 percent between 2018 and 2028. However, global uncertainty and an unprecedented level of upheaval because of the COVID-19 pandemic could impact this promising trajectory.
But change—whether in the form of new technologies, shifts in the economy, or other factors—is a given. A willingness to embrace it and a commitment to a lifetime of learning will always be essential elements for continued career growth.
The volume of new information civil engineers face is perpetually expanding. Advancements in materials, technologies, and software continue to improve and disrupt the way we work. These advancements compel us to adjust so that we can thrive in new contexts and under new circumstances. Most often, doing what it takes means learning new skills, deepening our knowledge, and expanding our capabilities throughout our careers.
The alternative is irrelevancy. If you fail to participate in code provision updates, if you don’t understand the properties of new materials, and if you don’t grasp the advantages of new digital technologies, you run the risk of watching the profession pass you by.
The Rise of the Adult Learner
This never-ending need to keep pace with innovations is fueling the growth of adult learning. Across industries and professions, workers are acknowledging the necessity of ongoing professional education to stay abreast of new processes and procedures in their jobs and to avoid becoming obsolete. It’s no wonder that adult learners, once minorities in the university student population, are becoming the new “traditional” students. Adult learners like this aren’t racing to catch up; in fact, they’re staying competitive and leading the pack.
Another factor driving the need to pursue ongoing professional education is the change in life expectancy. People are living longer than past generations, which means they need to spend more time in the workforce and retire significantly later than their parents did. According to data from the aforementioned report, just over one quarter of civil engineers are 55 years old or older, which is higher than the 22 percent average for the labor market.
To extend the shelf life of their careers, older workers need to be open to unlearning the ways they’ve conducted their work and relearning how to do their work going forward. Mastering new technologies, breaking old habits, and revising ways of working require sustained reskilling and upskilling in a formal professional educational setting rather than merely learning on the job.
For working professionals, educational options that provide industry-specific, real-world knowledge in flexible formats are essential to support different stages of their lives and careers. This need is driving change at universities like the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, which is refashioning campus programs to help learners stay current in a dynamic business landscape.
Such programs emphasize the importance of additional capabilities that complement engineers’ traditional skill sets and set them apart from their peers who may have the same technical abilities but lack professional and management expertise.
Choosing a Personal Board of Directors
How should civil engineers get started on this process? Which courses or programs will help you meet your career goals?
One way to find out is to tap into a network of mentors or career advisers. At Georgia Tech, administrators have identified the need for what they call a personal board of directors.
Mentors have always played important roles in our professional lives, but today’s professional landscape means that you’ll need a broader variety of perspectives and a fluid lineup of “board members” who can help you navigate your career and education and offer a mix of experience, talent, and diversity that a single mentor can’t match.
For example, if you’re at an early stage of your career and you aspire to management, select a board member who is just a year ahead of you or at the management level you intend to reach. Likewise, if you’re not sure about which career pathway to pursue, identify someone who could help you think through your options.
Even if you don’t intend to keep progressing to more senior positions in your career, a thoughtfully chosen personal board of directors can help you chart a career path that ensures you remain in demand—and fulfilled—in your current role.
Don’t be afraid to seek out experts from a wide range of disciplines even if you’ve never met them in person. This will allow you to explore new paths and new passions. The personal board of directors you choose should understand what you’re passionate about and help you follow these interests over a lifetime.
It doesn’t matter whether they are on different continents or the other side of the country. In today’s connected world, everyone is a click away. The teleworking movement forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic has proved that many highly collaborative business relationships can be established and maintained virtually.
You should also consider at least one board member who can help you overcome any self-doubt and provide the encouragement you need to take bold steps. This person needs to have insight as to who you are as a person and could be someone from within your community, your personal life, or any field outside your profession.
Your board may also feature traditional mentors, educators, peers, or bosses, but don’t hesitate to go beyond these roles. The main requirements are that your board members are people who have the skills, background, and knowledge base you need; who take your career development seriously; and who are willing to share their insights with you. You should gravitate toward people who give honest feedback and push you out of your comfort zone.
If you’re wondering why anyone would want to serve on your personal board, consider the benefits to the board members: You represent a potential source of talent to them. In addition, members of your board can become resources for one another and expand their own professional networks, which is valuable at any stage of a career. And don’t forget that they, too, are looking out for their careers. They may have also relied on others for career direction, so doing the same for you is a way to give back.
Career-long education is not optional but rather a matter of professional survival—even in a high-demand field like civil engineering. Having a team to help guide you on your path is not just beneficial—it’s invaluable.
—Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D., M.ASCE, is dean of professional education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a professor in the university’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
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