By Dennis D. Truax, Ph.D., P.E., DEE, D.WRE, F.NSPE, F.ASCE

man in suit smiling
Dennis D. Truax

I recall my freshman orientation week for many reasons. One event was a “welcome” address for first-year students by the associate dean. I sat there in a large auditorium listening to his presentation in my bell-bottom slacks and flowered shirt, long hair, mustache, and sideburns. I interpreted the message he delivered that day simply: conform to the norms of the past.

My first reaction was to think I might be in the wrong program. After all, I had just learned that the architectural engineering degree that attracted me there in the first place had been eliminated, and I’d have to consider other career options. Now I’m being told I don’t fit in engineering – period.

As I listened to this “old guy” in his white shirt, thin black tie, and white socks, I decided he was out of touch with the new reality. After all, it was the end of the 1960s and, to paraphrase American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan: Things they were a-changin’. Right then I decided they were not going to run me off that easily. I did, however, watch over half my freshman engineering friends leave the program for other careers, many because they felt they didn’t fit.

Since then, the academic environment has changed to be more inclusive and accepting. Having spent five decades working in academia, I’ve learned that each generation is different from the last. And this next one, Generation Z, is going to be an even greater departure from the norms of ’50s and ’60s engineering than any group preceding it.

Gen Z will be the first fully digital generation. They’ll expect rapid, short-term, constant acknowledgement of performance success. They’ll expect work to be more glamorous than it is because of all the hype they have consumed. They’ll find that their supervisors are ill-trained to lead them, as many are still trying to figure out millennials. They’ll constantly compare themselves with others and often be too critical of their own efforts. This will lead to self-doubt, unhappiness, and depression and could ultimately cause them to leave the profession.

This next generation of engineers needs real mentors: experienced and trusted advisers. They need a relationship that comes from mutual respect and one that is open to sharing and learning from mistakes without judgment. At ASCE, our Mentor Match program helps support and facilitate these important relationships so young engineers can better understand their value to the profession.

Gen Zers, much like millennials, want to be change agents. They need assurance that their work is significant. This means employers need to develop a mission statement incorporating community service and benefits to society. More importantly, leaders need to “walk the talk” and document this mission. Rising engineers can also look for community service opportunities with their local Younger Member Group.

This next generation values a balance of work, family, friends, and personal life. Working long hours for extended periods for the promise of more money just won’t be enough. Employers need to embrace flexibility in the work environment while ensuring accountability.

Lastly, we must recognize that “one size fits none.” Employers must realize that treating engineers as if they are all the same is a mistake. This backward thinking ignores the realities of being inclusive, ensuring equity, and embracing diversity. It is based on several fallacies derived from a time when our profession consisted of people who were demographically alike.

As H.G. Wells said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” Similarly, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species asserts that the species that survives is the one that is most adaptable to its changing environment. The next generation of engineers is adapting, working in new and innovative ways to better serve society, the environment, the profession, clients, and peers. The question remains to be seen if the work environment will adapt to these bright, creative servant leaders whom academia is graduating today. 

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Civil Engineering as “The Next Generation of Civil Engineers.”