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Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers
14

Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

2
(OP)
From my observations, there seems to be a divide between the younger and older engineers within the geotechnical engineering industry. There is a high demand right now for mid-to-senior level geotechnical engineers which understandably keeps them on their toes to focus on their projects without giving the necessary mentorship to help younger folks develop the elusive engineering judgment that apparently takes years to develop in geotechnical engineering.

However, as younger geotechnical engineers require an entirely different skillset nowadays, majority of technical skills, from numerical methods to modeling, the older engineers have nothing to offer but valuable intuitive approaches to geotechnical problems. The downfall of this is that the older geotechnical engineers were never expecting to become somewhat of a professor/mentor to younger engineers and do not have a proper means to effectively communicate their experience to younger geotechnical engineers without feeling attacked.

In the geotechnical engineering forum and within the geotechnical industry as a whole, there seems to be a hostility of some type from older engineers towards younger engineers. I understand this may be warranted because of their project deadlines but the bigger picture is that when they are gone, then younger engineers will not have the judgment they had.

There is a lot of judgment involved in geotechnical engineering and I believe it must be passed down. There is a lack of synergy between engineers and it seems mentorship as it was on the older times has died out, maybe due to technological differences between generation, maybe due to teleworking, etc. There seems to be a lack of collaboration or community within the geotechnical engineering community. Engineers seems on the edge, defensive-like, as compared, on the contrary, with sportsmen that strive to be a team and advocate for everyone to be the best versions of themselves in their field of practice/work/sport.

Disclaimer statement: Everything said above is a simple observation, and it is just that, a simple one, maybe even too simple coming from a newcomer. I apologize in advance if it offends anyone. The tone and attitude of this text is not meant at all to offend anyone, it is simply a critique.

I look forward to hearing from your responses, mainly from other geotechnical colleagues, younger and older, but insights from other engineering professionals are welcome too!
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RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

One could remove "geotechnical" from the above post, as it applies to a lot of engineering. There is a significant knowledge and experience transfer issue in many disciplines.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

It sounds like you may be working with the wrong engineers and possibly have false expectations.

In my experience, development of engineering judgement takes mostly experience and collaboration with a dash of mentorship. A mentor can provide broad stroke lessons in theory, review calculations, give some war stories, and go on a few site visits with younger engineers. But they can’t spend a ton of hours dedicated to getting you to your goal of having adequate engineering judgement as fast as possible. They obviously have clients to service and bosses to keep happy.

When I was early in my career, I had to do the hard work of reading white papers and design manuals (on my own time… and I still do!), researching the limited information on the internet (back then, it’s way better now), calling colleagues and old classmates, hanging out with geotechnical contractors, going to professional events, doing deep dives on performance testing data, and whatever else peaked my interest.

To potentially understand your situation more, can you provide some context as to how far along you are in your career? What has your experience been? An empty office? Absent project managers? Stuck in the field without anyone checking on you?

There are companies that are bad at mentoring, but they do not account for the industry as a whole. I would recommend not making comments that indicate we are all bad at mentoring, as they come across as off-putting leading to no one wanting to help you.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

2
I don't agree that the required skillset is totally different now; I think this statement alone says alot...as a graduate / junior engineer, are you the one who decides the skillset that is needed or what the business / profession is looking for?

You still need to understand soil logging and classification, construction quality control and assurance, and understand how things are actually built to become a geotechnical engineer. You also need to understand laboratory testing, and how site investigations are actually done. Likely this should comprise the majority of the first 5-7 years of your career; for some disciplines like tailings dams, you might reasonably expect this to be over half of the first 15-20 years of your career (with resident engineer / site engineer roles) built in before you actually become 'The Engineer'. This is how you develop 'engineering judgement' - by spending time in the field and lab and by understanding the limitations of design. The engineering judgement wont be gone - it will belong to those engineers who did their time in the field, listening to senior engineers, contractors / builders / lab technicians etc as it always has. IMO this has always been how it is. You don't learn engineering judgement from 'mentorship', unless the mentor is telling you to go to do field work or lab work.

There are always new technologies and methods, and grads can bring value by learning them - operating drones, using GIS, etc; but often it has been my observation that younger engineers don't fully appreciate how much more experienced engineers actually know. For example, previous generations grew up learning how to code, and many of your seniors may have done plenty of coding themselves - the current generation in my observation didn't learn to code / tinker the same way. I've worked with grads who think going on a python course gives them some new technological skill when the principal engineers at the company with 40+ years experience were coding tools for the company in the 90s. Also, what is really new? Critical state soil mechanics and FE have been around for 50+ years. If anything the industry seems to have gone the other way with my generation (~10 years experience) - i.e. CPTs got more common and advanced lab testing became much less common and now no one understands soil behaviour.

You also need to understand soil mechanics, geotechnical problem solving methods (i.e. LE, FE, etc and when to use them and what the limitations are), report writing, business (scoping and pricing projects, managing clients, delivering to time and budget), get over the bad habits you probably have from university (i.e. you need to get over procrastination and be able to turn up at work on time). You'd be surprised but I would guess the >80%+ of juniors get stalled at turning up at work on time and not procrastinating. In the real world, there is no leaving a $100k of fees project until 2 days before the deadline. You need to get after it and lean into it from day one.

You need to learn the difference between competence / confidence and arrogance. The former is something that someone has based on experience and repeatedly demonstrating the ability to accomplish a task. The later is a grad thinking they are right because they read something in a book

Perhaps there is something wrong with your workplace or your senior engineers but my experience has always been that those who feel the way that you do are the juniors who refuse to go outside and invent every excuse to try and hide at a desk plugging made up numbers into plaxis where they can't learn some important details about how things are actually built. Your model might not know that in a particular area piling contractors supply driven steel piles of a smaller diameter, shorter length and a smaller thickness than what is shown on the drawings, for example, or that a contractor that installs anchors might install a much larger anchor for a test anchor than the production anchors.

Finally, you need to understand that an engineering degree is your foot in the door, it doesn't make you The Engineer. You need to accept that the first 5 years of your career are essentially an apprenticeship which means getting over your attitude problems and learning how to be useful - i.e., doing tasks assigned to you in the manner prescribed, delivering on time, doing quality work, not procrastinating, arriving at work on time ready for work (again - how many have juniors who get lit on Wednesday night and turn up hungover on Thursday unable to work productively but still charge $2k of fees to a project?). If you don't have seniors coming to you with all of their menial tasks, you are doing something wrong. And do you know who gets the sage-like advice, the interesting projects (Which btw make up maybe 5% of all the work, maybe less)? The first person off the rack is the person doing menial tasks on time and on budget.

Edited to respond to this part:

>There seems to be a lack of collaboration or community within the geotechnical engineering community. Engineers seems on the edge, defensive-like, as compared, on the contrary, with sportsmen that strive to be a team and advocate for everyone to be the best versions of themselves in their field of practice/work/sport.

There is collaboration in Geotech. Lots of it. The collaboration is between peers, though. Just curious if you have ever been part of a sports team or a long-term team at work before. Did you get given the best role on the team on day one, or did you have to earn it first? What happens to those new team members who ignore the coach or who don't turn up to practice but want to be one of the starting players? What about those new team members that ignore the captain and other leaders on the team?

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

I think what you are experiencing is certainly not unique to you alone, but I do think it may be embedded in the culture where you work. My experience is 180 degrees different.....mentoring is not only encouraged in my company, but it is required for young engineers. The mentorship is, for the most part, embraced by young and old engineers alike. But maybe I'm the odd duck. One of the key concepts of mentorship is that its a two way street. One party needs to want to teach and the other party needs to want to learn. A mentorship can also be beneficial for both sides, the young engineer often has alot he/she can teach the old engineer. It cannot simply consist of the old engineer pounding his fist saying "This is how its done and this is how you need to do it". As an example, early in my career, LRFD for steel design was just starting to be introduced and its what I was taught in school. On my first day in the "real world", I attempted to design a beam using LRFD. The senior engineer reviewing my calcs took one look at "LRFD" I had written at the top of the page and sent me back to the drawing board to redo the calcs in ASD. He would not even look at it. Perhaps he did not want to get shown up by a newbie that knew more about LRFD than he did? Maybe. But that is an example of how its not supposed to work. (Disclaimer: I suspect the ASD-LRFD battle still takes place today between younger and older engineers).

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

The guy has to take full legal responsibility for the work, does he not? Responsible charge and all that. Why should he risk his house and life savings to accommodate someone on their first day? I'd of thought reviewing it and then making you do it his way would be a better approach but nevertheless. Although ASD - LRFD is probably a bit of a different case IMO. Also often these things are driven by my / clients as much as old engineers - changing the design method changes the results which may piss off a client who is expecting a result done a certain way with a certain cost; such is business, unfortunately.

I think my first report came back with so many redlines that he had to write on the back of the pages. After that I learned to talk to the reviewer about how I wanted to approach the problem first, and how he might approach it / wanted it approached.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

3
I think in all engineering specialties, younger engineers need to remember that all this new technology that is appearing are just tools. Just because you are whizz bang at a computer program does not mean you know anything except how to push the buttons. The software does not carry out the design, the engineer does. When something breaks they do not take the computer to court for manslaughter.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

One of my biggest cautions to students and junior engineers is to choose your first employers and mentors VERY carefully. IMHO there should be a divide bc juniors should be keeping most seniors at an arm's length. I've never known a company to lack quantity of willing mentors nor a willingness to train, but the quality of mentors and training at many companies today simply sucks. Many (especially smaller) companies are antiquated and their senior engineers' knowledge more comparable to juniors or even technicians because they dont use modern technology nor process, much less provide training on the host of other issues we encounter (data management, IP, import/export, licensing, site safety, etc) nor basic professionalism (negotiation, salesmanship, conflict resolution, public speaking, etc). They've been doing the same thing for decades and surviving based on a limited market or other artificial conditions, not bc they're good engineers doing quality work. I also know fairly modern companies where most working-class engineers coast from 50-onward, not that I begrudge senior management or someone retiring in six months' not learning the latest software tool but seniority is often abused otherwise. I applauded a former manager who had the guts to announce that he had no use for any member of our design team who couldn't run CAD, FEA, and other non-specialty analysis themselves. That employer (like many) had many seniors whose primary "design" task was nitpicking others work based on arbitrary "engineering judgement" (aka guessing) and approving prints they couldnt properly review. They also had the (common) poor-attitude that juniors must waste years "doing their time" as bored grunt labor performing endless basic tasks rather than being given challenging, deep projects forcing them to learn/grow. IMHO the best mentor to have is the senior engineer who truly does it all bc they have kept up with modern tools and techniques, and who is willing to treat juniors as their equal.
Unfortunately they're fairly rare IME.

Not to sidetrack but as ethics remind us, engineers should be advocating for the exact opposite of "engineering judgement." Engineering is a black and white science. A system either functions and meets spec or it does not. An engineer has either assessed risks, analyzed, tested, and peer-reviewed everything within a system or they haven't. The only details that should be open to judgment are arbitrary design/styling, not function. Its fairly rare but I do occasionally remind juniors that guessing isnt allowed in final design for external customers and to be very cautious of making guesstimations in front of others lest someone misconstrue opinion for fact.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

2

Quote (CWB1)

Not to sidetrack but as ethics remind us, engineers should be advocating for the exact opposite of "engineering judgement." Engineering is a black and white science.

Unfortunately, a lot of geotechnical engineering relies on engineering judgement because it's not always black and white. We can't always test soils and bedrock strength. Things don't always work on paper but work in reality. Geotech-ing's career will depend on a fair amount of engineering judgement and getting comfortable in the gray zone.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

Quote:

it's not always black and white. We can't always test soils and bedrock strength.

Every branch of engineering has uncertainty, hence the focus on risk assessment and remaining ethical. If you cant test and your risk score is high then obviously you have to refuse the work. OTOH, if you cant test and your risk score is low-moderate then you apply a large safety factor to the worst-case condition and disclose the uncertainty. There's no judgement nor grey involved.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

I'll broaden this to even ask the question on a generational basis.

Is there any organization -- or profession or community -- that does a good job at transferring expertise and work experiences from the Baby Boomer Generation to the Millennial?

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

A risk assessment is by definition applying judgement

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

In my experience, almost everything in a given engineering field requires interaction at some level with several OTHER engineering disciplines. For example - I'm an electrical engineer. But I either have to know a lot about chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, (software engineering), process engineering, and civil engineering . . . or perhaps know someone who is moderately expert in each of those fields. I also have to realize when I'm in over my head in any of those disciplines. Did I become good at all of these right away? Heck, no! I was lucky enough to run across some good people (engineers, technicians, mechanics, chemists, project managers, welders, etc.) who were willing to talk to a young fellow who was willing to ask questions - and listen to the answers.

Experience is gained OVER TIME by doing. This may mean actually physically performing a set of tasks. It may also mean reading (technical papers, manuals, academic research, advertising brochures, text books, newspapers, etc.) to obtain the background/theory/reasoning for certain decisions. It may include asking questions and simply discussing findings and ideas with others (whether they are directly in the field of endeavor or not) to help solidify a knowledge base. In short - use all the tools - even the "old school" ones. And realize it doesn't happen overnight. Also realize that the more experienced engineers may be learning something from you - either in terms of new processes/skillsets or by how you ask a question (maybe they never thought about that aspect of the design?).

I've been at this a long time - and the more experience I gain, the more I realize I have yet to learn.

Converting energy to motion for more than half a century

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

My first employer had the best development program that I've seen, and it was pretty simple. They hired very few (top quality) new grads, paid them very well, and treated them as any other employee. The company didnt coddle or bore anyone with busywork, they assigned juniors challenging projects from their first day and quickly forced them to learn design, project management, and other necessary skills. Earning patents, writing papers, creating simulation tools, etc were all expected in your first few years, as was the fact that you had a steep learning curve to climb to accomplish them. You were held to very high standards enforced by quick layoffs. OTOH, the company did provide a ton of (mostly outsourced) professional training, had good process, and great documentation to help juniors succeed. I learned a lot from mentors there, but learned far more reading internal design guides, internal and external papers, studying older designs, and by reviewing others' work. One of the best things my hiring manager did was send a mass email to ~500 engineers requesting that I be invited to all design, process change, and DFMEA reviews.

Quote:

A risk assessment is by definition applying judgement

Technically yes but not really. Risk levels are narrowly defined and scored as a team to eliminate any judgment/bias for repeatability's sake. One could argue that two teams may score the same risk slightly differently thus judgement is involved, but an individual's judgement should have effectively zero impact nor the scores differ enough to affect decision-making.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

CWB1, I think we're just playing with terms but generally agree on the same concept. Yes, ethics is paramount. Risk has to be analyzed in every situation. In my book, engineering judgment is required to assess risk in geotechnical engineering. But that might just be me.

I've worked at several firms and not once do we have the luxury of having a team score the risk of a certain situation. That sounds like a type of engineering with a higher budget than us dirt nerds. We look at the consequence and say: high, moderate, or low risk and base our plan around that assessment.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

Risk in geotech:

Shear strength +-50%, although this is really optimistic and probably ignores laterally variability and some other aspects of uncertainty, and also assumes you don't have a strain softening or brittle type situation going on

Stiffness +- 100%, although again this is probably optimistic. +-300% might be more likely.

Permeability - good luck! + 1000%. 10000%? you dig a hole a in clay and it turns out there's a sand layer you missed with the boreholes and water starts pissing into your excavation.

For fun, calculate what volume of soil is actually observed and tested via borehole prior to construction on most sites relative to the volume that is actually loaded.

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

More risk: you get asked to do a geotech in 2023 using boreholes from 2013; in 2018, the subdivision developer, needing fill and a cheap place to dispose of waste and brush, digs out 5m of your site to take the soil for fill, dumps construction debris and brush, and then puts a soil cap on it. They don't cover that in the textbook!

RE: Geotechnical Engineering - The Great Divide between Younger and Older Engineers

Quote:

I've worked at several firms and not once do we have the luxury of having a team score the risk of a certain situation. That sounds like a type of engineering with a higher budget than us dirt nerds.

My projects run the gamut from a few hours to several years' length with similar variety of budgets. Process is basically the same for all bc it scales based on effort. For small solo projects I might spend an hour modifying a FMEA template to fit and having another engineer review. Project plans, design reviews, etc are the same - I scale, formally document, and review each bc its quick, easy, and CYA. At the end of a small project I might only have two slides with a really basic Gantt chart, FMEA, and a couple bullets otherwise but the customer, management, regulators, etc can easily see how the customer's money was spent, why risk was accepted or testing ran, why design decisions were made, and who reviewed each process step.

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