Engineers Need A Good Understanding of the World

Forget the fact that you’ve never traveled outside the U.S. or that you don’t posses a passport.  Or that your definition of “foreign travel” is that time you visited Cancun for spring break.  The world isn’t flat.  It’s small, interconnected, and what happens in some obscure corner of a place you’ve never heard of can affect you.  You don’t need to necessarily like this fact, but you do need accept it and prepare for it.  Especially if you intend to be relevant in your engineering career.

Successful individuals working internationally give special consideration to the different social and cultural realities of each nation they operate in.  Values, attitudes, and the demographic characteristic of a society combine to make up the social factors they need to be aware of.  These are the soft skills that engineers most often are accused of lacking in large abundance.  And my experience from more than a decade outside the U.S. is that the accusation is valid.

Combine a lack of understanding of the world with a tenuous grasp of the soft skills and you’re left with a large gap to fill.  The best way to fill that gap is to (1) want to and (2) do something about it. 

Start with wanting to fill the gap.  Again, engineers must be aware of what’s happening around the world because it affects you professionally and personally.  From materials to people, resources are significantly affected domestically by events around the globe.  An increase the cost of oil drives an increase in the cost of transportation of goods, increasing the cost of a project.  Availability of cement may become a major concern when construction in China escalates.  You don’t need to posses that passport to grasp the need to remain tuned into world events beyond the attention grabbing headlines. 

Filling the gap in understanding world events and learning about the societal demographics of certain regions can start with increased self-study.  Reading articles off the web or through magazines, books about regional or country analysis.  If you’re interested in taking your learning into the field by actually going international, then you need to focus your career development efforts on firms that are established in the region you’re interested in.  Begin developing a body of knowledge about what work they’re doing, where they’re doing it and for whom.

Bottomline is that engineering is an international affair and it no long matters if you’re simply a design engineer with a small firm in a small town in middle America. 

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals. 

Image courtesy of dan and