I recently had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with some local high school students who are members of the Building Leaders for the Susquehanna Valley program. This group was picked among some of the brightest local students and they meet on a monthly basis. Their February session included an exercise where they were given a hypothetical 200-acre property in “Bright Hope”, USA and divided into groups to propose a development on the tract. After a brainstorming session, each of the five groups unveiled their plans, which ranged from a hospital to a golf course to a power plant.
Over lunch, I joined professionals from the Central PA Chamber of Commerce, Union County Planning Department, Bucknell University Small Business Development Corporation, and Susquehanna Visitors Bureau to quiz a group on their ideas and to provide real-world insight to refine their proposal. After some tweaks (from coal-fired power to natural gas at my table), each group took turns giving a final presentation to the entire group.
Presenters were required to take questions from the floor and, as you might imagine, inquiries from the peer group sometimes bordered on ridiculous. While the conspiracy theory-like questions were all in fun on this day, their content was not far removed from the sensationalism that often plagues developers and engineers at public hearings and municipal meetings. Afterward, each professional was asked for some words of wisdom.
I think the biggest takeaway was that the phrase “I don’t know” is sometimes an appropriate answer. This may not seem intuitive to a presenter whose goal is to captivate an audience with persuasive proposal delivery, but no matter how knowledgeable you are on a subject or how well you think on your feet, curveballs can be the norm. The integrity of saying, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but will be glad to research it and get back with you,” holds value with the type of clients and public servants that we want to be working alongside.
This comes pretty naturally for most engineers. Our Professional Code of Ethics even calls for us to practice only within areas of our competence and to issue public statements in an objective and truthful manner. But on my way back to the office, I wondered how this advice resonated with a group of students who are in their junior year of high school. These kids are saturated with available information and the answer is usually only a Google search and Wikipedia entry away. Social media has given everyone a forum to share thoughts, whether fact or opinion.
The design and problem solving technology available to this generation is already inconceivable, yet it continues to evolve. It’s an exciting time to be an aspiring architect or engineer, but some things never change. When someone knows all of the answers all of the time, it is usually good reason for a certain degree of skepticism. Seems to me that youngsters exhibiting old school values like respect, integrity, and customer service really have an opportunity to separate themselves and shine.
I’m pretty confident that I met a few of those future stars over the lunch hour. But I can’t predict what the method of transmitting their resumes to LDG will look like a few years from now.