The origin of the word “mentor” extends back to Homer’s Odyssey. Although modern mentor interpretations generally don’t include watching over someone’s home and family, themes of carefully guiding development (whether personal or professional) do hold fast today. And for mechanical engineers, an engineering mentorship can go a long way toward easing the odyssey of one’s career.
Today’s mechanical engineers are, of course, schooled in the technical aspects of their specialty: Statics, dynamics, materials science, stress analysis, heat transfer, fluid dynamics, and so forth are part of their college curriculum. But what about day-to-day workplace challenges? That’s where experience—the second phase of a mechanical engineer’s education—kicks in, often through workplace mentoring.
“I’ve had a mentor for the last couple of years who started as a colleague and then continued after leaving the company,” says Ilea Graedel, a young mechanical engineer in Silicon Valley. “It was great because I had a dedicated person who was interested in seeing me succeed and could guide me through the company culture. Since we’ve both left the company, we continue to meet to discuss career goals, continuing education, et cetera.”
These days, a typical mechanical-engineering office may comprise engineers with a wide range of experience, from baby boomers to new university grads. The closer that engineers are to their college days, the more in tune they are likely to be with the latest methods and developments in the field. But that doesn’t mean they understand daily workplace pressures.
“Graduate students often need help with time management, motivation, and focus,” says Kevin Cole, University of Nebraska professor of mechanical and materials engineering. “They are not supervised minute-by-minute, so they need to find a way to manage themselves and to find their own working style.”
That working style is key when students enter the workforce, as deadline pressures are different. Engineers are often called upon to meet intermediate accomplishment milestones and demonstrate progress toward the final goal. Guidance from a mentor can help a junior engineer recognize when to pull out of the technical work stream and switch to a preparation phase to present the required progress reports to management.
Mentors can also offer invaluable insight to managing support personnel, such as lab or shop techs; navigating internal processes and documentation; and even working through technical issues.
“Experienced engineers will always have technical guidance to offer,” Graedel says. “It isn’t just about the latest CAD programs or knowing all the online shortcuts. It’s about understanding common technical hurdles, the process for overcoming issues, knowing about past successes and failures, leveraging generations with different thought processes, and learning from experienced engineers who have had both successes and failures.”
Early on in my 34-year mechanical-engineering career, I was involved in the design phase of a major U.S. Navy weapon system’s generational upgrade. Our design groups were based around major component families of the system and internally organized with a more senior engineer as lead with a few younger engineers reporting to him. (This was three decades ago, so it was almost always “him.”)
Consultation with, and guidance from, the lead engineers kept us young engineers moving in the right direction on our equipment-design tasks. Our lead engineers had been through generational upgrades in years past and knew the ins and outs, which provided us with an instant leg up on the learning curve—a valuable resource that we relied upon and learned from.
That idea still holds true for today’s young engineers. “It’s important for more experienced engineers to share their knowledge with younger generations,” Graedel says. “If younger engineers can learn from already-made mistakes, it can help programs move forward more quickly without repeating actions that are already known to be ineffective.”
So how does a young engineer find a mentor? If an employer doesn’t offer a formal mentoring program, it may be a matter of establishing an informal relationship with a more experienced engineer for advice.
“At my previous job, I became friends very quickly with another mechanical engineer, and he became an informal mentor,” says Mathew Skerritt, a recently hired engineer at a large defense firm. “He sat next to me, which made asking questions or collaborating very easy. We worked together for nearly two years, and he taught me very valuable things, such as drawing questions, proper part-design skills, and how to procure parts.”
Sometimes, these relationships naturally fall into place when a junior engineer is assigned to work with a more senior person in a lead position. If that is not the case, a supervisor should be able to suggest someone—he or she might even take on the task.
“Personally, I like a combination of formal and informal for a mentoring program,” Graedel says. “It’s great to have a dedicated person who is interested in passing along their knowledge and expertise but without the pressure of needing to meet at specific times. It’s also great when older colleagues let you know that they are available to help if you need them.”
Another option is to look to mentoring resources maintained by professional organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) or the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Seeking guidance outside of the workplace is less straightforward because the help from those sources is likely to be more general and not as closely associated with internal employment issues and procedures.
Still, these resources can be valuable—and not just for those looking to find mentors, but those looking to be mentors. Being a mentor offers more seasoned engineers the opportunity to learn leadership skills, improve communication, and discover new technology. Engineering is about doing the unexpected, and you can teach an old(er) dog new tricks.
“I don’t think that the age of the mentor is important, but rather their knowledge,” Skerritt says.
Mentoring programs—whether formal, informal, or just coincidental—are a valuable asset in a mechanical-engineering workplace. No matter how well-organized and well-intentioned a company’s training programs are, additional ongoing support in the form of mentoring pays off in ways that might be difficult to delineate in a spreadsheet but do show up in the bottom line.