Generational labels are stupid. Engineering transcends age

A tired old greybeard engineer, sits arms folded, frown fully deployed, carrying an unhealthy skepticism of any IT trend sporting a cute monosyllabic name, as he glares at the young punk across the table - a "Millennial." The youthful opponent, looks up momentarily from her Instagram post as if to make an impassioned, ecologically sound plea to experiment with a new technology or process, then quickly down again – Squirtle's just around the corner!


It's an oft painted, albeit tiresome image of impending generational cataclysm beset on engineering and driven by one remarkable fact: how the entire engineering workforce has developed an unprecedented age gap.

Oh crap, is this another piece explaining that Millennial engineers have intrinsic powers wholly attributable to an arbitrary range of birthdates encapsulated by a catch phrase? No, that's this one, actually. But you know you're not buying any of that crap, lest you need an old fashioned beat-down from Carl Sagan to remind you that imparting abilities by birthright is something worthy of astrology. And if for some reason Carl feels like a dated reference to you, rest assured Neil deGrasse Tyson would kick your ass just the same.

Millenial. Gen X. Boomer. Gen Next. I hate those labels because it's a gross oversimplification of how environment and technology affects how we live, how we learn, and what our expectations are. And they have no place in engineering. I work with engineers of all ages on a daily basis, and one thing is very clear: engineering transcends age.

The age gap apocalypse

The primary concern behind a historically unprecedented age gap in the engineering workforce is a developing crisis of expertise. The phenomenon is especially acute in aerospace and oil & gas, where the cyclical nature of each industry has contributed to significant hiring gaps.

Are companies doing enough to attract young talent? Are there enough STEM graduates available? Will the younger engineers in an organization be able to carry on with the impending loss of deep knowledge held by senior engineers, long on the precipice of retirement? And how can they possibly get along because, you know, they're from different generations and those kids have so many demands and those old farts are just so entrenched in their opinions. Insert sitcom here.

That type of thinking leads to articles like The Case for Young Engineers, in Terms of CAD, which goes about trying to justify catering to young engineers for all the wrong reasons.

As if the concept of a young, inexperienced engineer is somehow a new thing. This is not a Muppet Babies moment. There have always been young engineers en masse since the industrial age began, and there will be many more to come.

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So let's examine some of the misguided assumptions quoted in the above article about catering to young engineers and come up with some advice that's actually useful for ensuring you have a vibrant engineering organization.

Bad assumption: "Young engineers...think outside the box...leading to product innovation."

The notion that innovation is the purview of the young is ageist nonsense. Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry launched his first liquid-fueled rocket at age 44. Jack Kilby, newly employed by Texas Instruments, was 35 when he came up with this thing called the integrated circuit. Innovation is independent of age.

Real advice: Innovation is critical to the survival of every organization. Every engineering organization should have an institutionalized forum, backed at the executive level to capture new ideas, regardless of who came up with them, and act on them, iterate on them to prove long-term value. If your company upholds such a process broadly and visibly, you'll have no problem attracting innovative engineers, whatever their ages might be.

Bad assumption: "tap into your millennial engineers to help your company build your brand and keep it relevant on social media streams"

Quantum mechanics invokes a standing restraining order: marketing is to keep at least 500m away from engineering at all times. Engineers are not marketers, they are engineers. While you could make the argument that engineers are becoming more market savvy and marketers are becoming more engineering savvy this too is an age-independent phenomenon. But this feels like trying to use the LHC to mow your lawn, it's just not terribly effective.

Real advice: Focus on an aspect of social media use that might actually matter for engineering: communication. Engineers who can communicate well are worth their weight in Einsteinium, because they can convey ideas, persuade others, and mobilize teams. Leave the land of baby animal pictures and search engine rankings to the marketing professionals.

Bad assumption: "These young engineers have been thinking globally their entire college careers"

Just FYI thinking globally for four years is a far cry from acting globally for twenty. Virtually every market is now global and most modern engineering firms have been operating globally for years by necessity. Along with that comes the need to manage and execute with global teams.

Real advice: This is fundamentally about diversity which includes but is not limited solely to youth. Diverse workforces are innovative workforces and are best equipped to tackle engineering challenges on global stages.

Bad assumption: "Recent college graduates...have trained on and successfully worked with a variety of CAD programs, likely many more than they’ll work with at an engineering company"

Breadth of experience does not equal depth of experience. Besides more often than not this is just not true, most college programs don't have the bandwidth to deep dive into specific tools. You'll get wider exposure to tools by working with 5 engineering companies.

Real advice: Tool training is useful, but the skill that really makes a difference is tool adaptability. Tools change, so should your engineers. Technology is changing the role of tools dramatically to extend beyond merely executing tasks, but taking on grander challenges. Challenges which include the preservation of engineering knowledge and the ability to leverage said knowledge quickly and efficiently. The key word you're looking for here is Knowledge Based Engineering (KBE).

Bad assumption: "Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to hire millennial engineers young engineers can lighten the company atmosphere, with their jokes and joshing and playful aura."

What is this? I don't even... According to the above statement young engineers are like kitty cats, looking so cute falling over themselves, making jokes, and playing ping pong. Newsflash #1: getting a dog has the same effect and he works for kibble. Newsflash #2 if ping pong is a critically needed skill, you're probably better off hiring this guy.

Real advice: Stop making stupid assumptions about millennial engineers. Step away from generation strife and focus on what matters.


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