I’ve been supervising and mentoring electrical engineering graduates for a few years now and there are some mistakes that come up with surprising regularity. Some of these errors surface through lack of experience and may be unavoidable, but others are more about ditching bad habits. That said, these aren’t mistakes that only graduates make, but they are certainly more common early in an engineer’s career.
1. Not referencing sources and justifying assumptions
At university, just printing the final answer to a problem is enough for some professors. But that won’t cut it in industry. Unlike university, there’s every likelihood that someone has to pick up your work (e.g. report, calculation, etc) in the future and try to understand how you came up with the final answer. In the worst case, that someone could be an expert witness in court assessing whether or not your work was negligent.
So you absolutely must reference all of your sources of data and list all of your assumptions. Moreover, you must justify why these assumptions were made or why a particular set of data was selected.
Someone, possibly years after the fact, should be able to follow your logic and confirm that a solid approach was followed and good “engineering judgment” was shown in arriving at the final answer. If not for someone else, then at least do it for yourself, so you can look back and understand what you did. There were certainly times early in my career when I’ve had to look back at my own work 6 months on and decipher what I was thinking at the time – it’s not a good feeling when you don’t even understand your own work!
2. Lack of attention to detail
The bulk of engineering is about the details and getting them right. This is especially important when there are hundreds of design documents and drawings all cross-referencing each other. Making an error in one document can lead to errors in other documents that cross-reference and depend on it. Attention to detail is more of a habit that is formed rather than a personality trait, but sadly, most students don’t appear to form this habit at university.
For example, suppose a cable number is changed. Obviously the cable schedule will need to be revised, but the cable number may also appear on cable routing layouts, single line diagrams, schematic drawings, cable transit drawings, cable sizing calculations etc. All of these documents / drawings will need to be updated also, but a common graduate mistake is to just stop at the cable schedule and forget about the rest!
3. Not asking questions
One of the most important early career skills that an electrical engineer will learn is how to ask questions. Schools and universities do not even attempt to nurture this skill. After all, it’s not just discouraged to ask questions and collaborate during tests, it’s strictly prohibited! However unlike school, industry isn’t going to accept an answer that is only 65% correct. So while it’s generally expected that things will be done right, it’s not expected that one person will know everything.
Therefore people have to work together and combine their knowledge. And by people, I don’t just mean other electrical engineers in your team, but everyone – engineers, designers, project management, vendors, sub-contractors, procurement staff, technical specialists, etc. If you don’t know something, then by all means try to find out the answer by yourself first. But if you’re still stuck, then ask someone! Don’t worry about looking stupid – chances are they’ve asked the same question themselves once before. But more importantly, don’t leave things to chance by ignoring the things you’re unsure of and hoping it’ll all work out in the end.
4. Impractical designs
A good engineer will design electrical systems not only with the primary function in mind, but also with a number of practical considerations, e.g. maintainability, ease of access, practicality of installation / removal, ergonomics, sparing and reliability, future allowances, etc. Graduates will almost universally not do this. They will specify a large cable to enter a switchboard without first checking the cable’s bend radius, or locate a large panel in a crowded room without considering how it can be removed later or accessed for maintenance.
It’s probably unfair to label this a mistake since it’s largely a function of experience and universities rarely teach the practical nature of engineering. However graduates should be made aware, as early as possible, that these practical factors exist. It also highlights the value of sending graduates to site early on, so that they can witness firsthand how designs on paper are transformed into reality. For example, if you’ve ever had to help a crew bend a large armoured cable, then I can assure you that you won’t be forgetting the concept of bending radius for a long time.
5. Copying and pasting without understanding
The use of examples from past projects as a basis for new documents, drawings and calculations (the so-called “go-by”) is pretty standard in industry. But to use them properly, you need to understand what’s in them and how they need to be modified for a specific project or circumstance. In other words, the content of go-by’s need to be critically evaluated and moreover, they need to be checked against the project requirements and any technical standards that must be adhered
Many graduates are only too happy to exercise their copy and paste skills, but stop short of ensuring that the work actually makes sense for their specific application. It’s likely that there are sections in the documents that they don’t really understand, but if it was good enough on the last project, it’ll be good enough now right? Sometimes that plays out well, but other times, mistakes are made. Often they are minor errors, such as specifying a motor to be foot mounted rather than flange mounted, but more serious errors can be made (e.g. wrong equipment type specified). Of course, all work should be peer-reviewed before being issued, and the errors are likely to be captured, but copying and pasting without accompanying understanding should be discouraged wherever possible. If you don’t understand something, find out or ask someone.
6. “This work is below me…”
I’ve been fortunate enough to supervise motivated and (mostly) hard-working graduates, but I’ve heard many complaints from my colleagues about the attitude of their graduates. Attitudes like “This work is below me” or “This should be done by the secretary” or “I want to do something more interesting”.
But the sad truth is that a large chunk of engineering work is pretty boring, and at times I don’t feel that there’s much to distinguish engineering from clerical work (e.g. creating, sorting and reviewing lists, repetitive tasks like generating dozens of data sheets with similar content, etc). I’m still yet to meet a senior or lead engineer that doesn’t do their own tedious drudge work, so if they don’t feel like the work is below them, then neither should the graduates.
When I was a graduate, I used to make up little computer programs to automate some of the really repetitive tasks, but even now there are still times when I have to manually fiddle around in Microsoft Office for a few hours. We all understand that it’s boring, but it’s generally work that needs be done (or that the client is expecting to be done), and if not by the graduate then by somebody else. So if the lead engineer has to do it because the graduate doesn’t want to, then that’s not going to make the lead engineer very happy, nor will it make it likelier for the graduate to be assigned better work!
In Search of a New Generation of Power Systems Engineers
Over the next decade, it is estimated that over half of the power systems engineering workforce is eligible to retire. At the same time as knowledge and experience leave the industry, there is renewed investment and political will to upgrade ageing infrastructure and transform the grid to integrate renewable and distributed sources of generation.
This blog looks at how we as a profession are going to fill this gap between growing demand and shrinking supply of specialist power engineering skills, with particular focus on the education and training of a new generation of power systems engineers.
Open Electrical is a free power systems engineering resource for industry practitioners, academics and students.
- Surviving Mesothelioma
- Dismal Unemployment Numbers for Electrical Engineers
- Filling the Power Engineering Skills Gap
- The Unwritten Laws of Engineering
- Recruiting Challenges in the Power Sector
- In a Warming Job Market, the Hottest Sector is Power
- Smart Grid and the Next Generation
- European Universities not “turning out enough engineers”
- Reinventing the Way We Teach Engineers
- Improving Mathematics Education
- HBS Case Study Approach to Engineering Education
- Comparing Engineering in India and Australia
- Can Engineering Schools be Fixed? Part 3
- Can Engineering Schools be Fixed? Part 2
- Can Engineering Schools be Fixed? Part 1