The future of work is changing. Companies are faced with a skills gap. Multiple studies comparing traditional degrees vs. specialized skills or on-the-job training are now getting much attention. How can we attract the next generation of young designers and engineers to join our industry, and how can we keep the ones already in?
Below are some of my own experiences from early on in my career. The intent is to bring attention to and show younger generations that what they are experiencing is not unique to their generation. Though not unique, we want to send a message that we acknowledge some of the different struggles and that those who have gone through these hardships are willing to provide mentorship to help our younger plumbing designers and engineers navigate it.
Not good enough without titles or degrees
When I first joined the industry, I kept hearing that a PE license was the only designation that matters in this profession. All others were just letters with not much weight behind them. During that time, I was working two jobs, and the flexibility in obtaining a degree was not readily available. When I learned that there was a Certified in Plumbing Engineering (CIPE) program, I got excited about it and started studying to get this certification. However, there was pushback from the Professional Engineering community, and to resolve this, ASPE changed it to Certified in Plumbing Design (CPD). This left a sour taste in my mouth, and I stopped the pursuit of any certification. I was young and foolish back then, and instead, I took the attitude of working as hard as I could and learning from multiple mentors to prove that I could be a better designer and leader without titles after my name. I was lucky to have good mentors to keep me interested and not leave the industry. Others are not so lucky.
The unfortunate truth — not unique to the plumbing industry — is that without a degree or credentials, individuals tend to be overlooked and not immediately considered leaders. The ironic thing about this is that most successful and influential leaders do not have a degree: Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson, to name a few. The one that is dearest and closest to my heart is Adm. Mike Boorda, and he became one of my role models. I recall when he visited us in boot camp and gave a life-changing speech. His speech became one of the foundations for how I go about issues, obstacles and kindly treat all individuals. He is the first enlisted (without a college degree) Navy personnel to become a Chief Naval Officer — the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy (reserved for officers or individuals with a degree). What does this have to do with plumbing? The above example shows that with hard work and the right mentor and role model, even a position reserved for individuals with the highest education is attainable.
My present point of view: I still believe in the fundamental core values I started with then. However, my opinions about the titles and credentials have evolved. Job titles help our industry in a way that typically shows the person’s experience level. Titles and credentials often represent your job responsibilities and duties. After years in the service, Adm. Mike Boorda was selected through an “Integration Program,” through which a few enlisted personnel were admitted to officer school. I was not aware of this process before, but it does not diminish my admiration for his leadership, character and influence.
Assumptions of minimal knowledge about systems
Early in my plumbing design career, I was constantly challenged and questioned simply because I was new to the industry. A few people assumed that I did not know anything about steam, not knowing that this is an essential thing we learned in the U.S. Navy, and not just how it works, but how to work with and operate it. I was challenged regarding my knowledge of gas generators by peers, unaware that I used to operate and overhaul these generators as a yacht technician. The list of challenges from my peers was relentless. I have heard that the younger generations are experiencing similar challenges.
My present point of view: This was very frustrating and a big nuisance to me back then. Now, I can confidently say I would not be who I am without those challenges. I also understand now that some assumptions were my fault for not correctly communicating my past experiences. We must learn to communicate more effectively, and the leaders must be more receptive.
Emerging technology industry
This has been particularly challenging in our MEP industry. Our industry continues to lose our younger generation of designers and engineers to technology industries. I have heard from the younger generations that they want to support new, innovative industries that accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
My response: Our industry has a lot of innovative systems that promote sustainability, too. Rain harvesting, air-source and wastewater-source domestic water heat pumps, reclaimed and dual plumbing systems, to name a few. On top of sustainability, how about designing a hospital system that saves lives? How about the specialty lab systems that are crucial for developing medicines? As leaders in our industry, we need to find a more effective way of marketing and reaching out to the next generations about everything we do. They need to see the passion in our eyes when we speak. Modern technology industries are good, but it is only good until a newer technology industry comes along. The technology industries trending now, but how far into the future? What happens when a better industry comes along with better technology and sustainability? The thing is, you cannot escape plumbing. Plumbing basics are usually associated with waste and water. Water covers approximately 71% of the earth’s surface. Try living without water.
Our industry has a lot of innovative systems that promote sustainability, too. Rain harvesting, air-source and wastewater-source domestic water heat pumps, reclaimed and dual plumbing systems, to name a few. On top of sustainability, how about designing a hospital system that saves lives? How about the specialty lab systems that are crucial for developing medicines? As leaders in our industry, we need to find a more effective way of marketing and reaching out to the next generations about everything we do. They need to see the passion in our eyes when we speak.
Most of our industry's young plumbing engineers and designers have experience or currently experience the examples above. The above examples mentioned are my own experiences, but in talking with individuals in our industry, I have found they have the same experiences. What can we do as an industry to fix this? There should be lessons learned from the past that should not be repeated. Also, we need to look closely at our industry’s culture and see if there is anything that we can do to influence it positively.
To our younger generations of engineers and designers — stay on the course, keep charging and using the different tools and platforms available now, find a mentor, and together, we can advance the plumbing industry to another level. One key element to success is being open-minded. Do not take these challenges as a direct assault on you. This is an excellent opportunity to gain experience and show what you can do. Be humble. People have heard me joke that “with my 20+ years of experience, I only know 10% of plumbing.” I joke about it, but it is somewhat true. Plumbing technology, codes, standards, etc., are constantly changing.
To my fellow plumbing industry leaders and mentors, be fluid and adjust your mentoring style to cater to everyone’s needs. “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.” — Eleanor Roosevelt.
I learned that ASPE launched a Mentorship program, which I will fully support and take mentees early next year. I was fortunate to have unlimited access to different mentors early on. My mentors in the military, yacht, sales and MEP industries all have one thing in common — strong passion and humility. I clearly understood what they wanted in return — pay it forward. If we fail to attract the next generation of young engineers and designers, to whom should I pay it forward? To those ready to pass the torch, to whom should you pass the torch? I am not prepared to pass my torch just yet. However, I will use my torch to help light the path of the next generation of plumbing engineers and designers.
Next month is a new year, and I am looking forward to starting mentoring under the ASPE program. Happy Holidays to all!