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My daughter and her roommate are both dedicated to their engineering studies. My daughter, with unwavering determination, is enthusiastically pursuing a degree in chemical engineering, firmly believing it to be her true calling. In contrast, her roommate is on a journey toward a mechanical engineering degree, but she grapples with uncertainty. She finds herself torn between different engineering disciplines, including electrical and chemical engineering. This indecision is causing her considerable anxiety. She worries that making the wrong choice now might lead her down a path of lifelong unhappiness.
I emphasized the importance of selecting a degree program aligned with her intrinsic interests and passions. In engineering, this would involve an appreciation for technical problem-solving and mathematics.
However, beyond getting in the ballpark with the right degree, it is important to acknowledge that the spectrum of career opportunities within any engineering field is remarkably wide and, I contend, broader than the distinctions between engineering disciplines. Even for those who, like my daughter, feel they have discovered their true calling, newly minted engineers rarely understand what it is like to live a day in the life of the career options available.
Wherever you find yourself in your career journey, if your primary concern centers on assessing whether your career path grants you fulfillment, and if you constantly ponder whether the grass might be greener elsewhere, I believe you may miss an important lesson.
For most, I contend that our focus should lie in continuously challenging ourselves to derive satisfaction from the inherent challenges of our chosen career. It is about learning to appreciate and find happiness in the path we’ve selected. This isn’t meant to undermine the validity of career transitions, which can be necessary and advantageous for some. However, every position offers valuable enrichment and potential for growth.
I considered degrees in engineering and physics before ultimately deciding on mechanical engineering. My rationale was that it appeared to be the most versatile choice, enabling me to defer any specific career decisions.
Astonishingly, it wasn’t until I neared graduation from a flagship engineering program that I surveyed job listings and learned the terms HVAC and mechanical, electrical and plumbing. With a less-than-stellar GPA, my job options were limited; I accepted an offer from the only employer willing to take a chance on me.
While my career path was far from intentional, I’ve become grateful for the industry I stumbled into. I can confidently say this field offers the full range of experiences to satisfy anyone’s aspirations. Moreover, having stuck with this career for a quarter of a century, I can state that I’ve become an expert in my field.
This isn’t meant as a boast but rather a simple, objective truth that comes with honing one’s skills over time. Achieving expertise in any area empowers us to reach our full potential, and it’s a wish I hope for everyone.
Develop An MEP Positive Mindset
I would like to share a few valuable tools I use to create a positive mindset and fully leverage the opportunities that a career in the MEP industry has to offer:
• Celebrate the wins and recognize that if you are not careful, you will miss them. Winning in the MEP industry isn’t like a victory on the baseball field. These triumphs are often hard-won, complex and sometimes take a while to appreciate fully. Here’s a story to illustrate this point:
Our team was entrusted with designing a storage facility for a specialized food product, one that came with unique temperature and humidity requirements. After securing the project, the client casually mentioned that the maximum relative humidity needed to be 10 percentage points lower than what was initially stated in the Request for Proposal. This was a significant change, particularly as the facility’s temperature was set at 60 degrees.
After consulting with the refrigerated equipment vendor, we discovered we could meet this new requirement by incorporating subcooling and hot gas reheat. However, this would increase equipment costs by 40 percent, which constituted a major portion of the project budget.
Understandably, the client was displeased, and we were willing to walk away from the project if necessary. Feeling the pressure to salvage it, our team put in extra hours that night and canceled a team-building event the following morning to brainstorm solutions. We analyzed climate data, estimated the impact of hot and humid air infiltration, and by the end of the second day, we devised a potential solution.
Although it involved a slight increase in control system costs, it allowed us to use the originally specified equipment to achieve the desired lower humidity level. We decided to move forward, but we were exhausted and didn’t feel like celebrating. Moreover, there was uncertainty and uneasiness about how our solution would perform in the real world.
Fast-forward one year, and the project was constructed and operational. During a record-breaking summer with extreme heat, we faced a day when the wet bulb temperature, a measure of humidity, reached an all-time high. I quietly logged into the control system at my desk and saw that the temperature and humidity in the facility were within specification. I celebrated this victory in solitude and then returned to the new hectic project our team was designing.
The key takeaway here is that in the MEP industry, celebrating wins can be a quiet, personal moment, and it might take time to fully appreciate the magnitude of your achievements. It’s essential to recognize and embrace these triumphs, even if they don’t come with the immediate fanfare of a baseball victory:
Be grateful for the challenges. Certainly, it is natural to wish our jobs were easier, with fewer communication breakdowns, budget overruns, and people issues. However, in moments of frustration, I am reminded of a quote by the short story author Donald Barthelme. While he likely meant it with sarcasm, I choose to take it at face value: “There is nothing more rewarding than a fresh set of problems.” I use this quote as my daily reminder to be grateful for the challenges we face.
Each day, especially when the workload seems insurmountable and time is scarce, I remember there are always more solutions, infinitely more, to a problem than I initially perceive. This shift in perspective can transform an overwhelming feeling into a positive challenge. Embracing these challenges opens a world of possibilities and creative thinking.
I recall an instance when an engineer tirelessly pored over textbooks late into the night, attempting to solve a highly technical problem. Yet, the following morning, the project manager convened a meeting with the customer and stakeholders. Remarkably, within an hour, they had found a clear path forward.
What had initially appeared as a technical problem needing a textbook solution was more effectively resolved by managing the customer’s expectations and having a meaningful conversation. Again, a simple shift in perspective and meaningful dialogue could be the key to overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Embrace your uniqueness. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside numerous capable leaders. It’s only natural to occasionally compare myself to them and feel inadequate. I might catch myself thinking, “That leader excels at framing the importance of a topic, something I may struggle with as I quickly dive deep into problem-solving. Will I ever reach the same level?”
In such moments, I remind myself that observing skilled leaders is a way to learn; observing ineffective leaders provides equal learning opportunities.
Importantly, I recognize I don’t need to replicate someone else’s leadership style, nor do I desire to. As I mentioned, there’s an infinite array of solutions to any problem and an equally infinite spectrum of leadership styles.
For proof, consider the challenge of designing a creature suited for life on planet Earth. We have an astonishing variety of creatures, from ostriches and elephants to spiders and jellyfish, each having ingeniously solved the puzzle of survival in their unique way. Similarly, in the world of leadership, there are countless ways to thrive and make an impact, shaped by your distinctive qualities and approach.
Celebrate your individuality and the richness it brings to your leadership journey.
Be mindful of the importance of our work. Let’s pause and reflect on the profound significance of our work. In the MEP industry, we are the designers of the systems breathing life into the built environment, the very spaces where humanity spends 90 percent of its existence. These are the places where our children grow and learn, where the ill find healing. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the critical role of ventilation systems in safeguarding public health. What nobler calling can there be?
As we confront the imminent environmental challenges in the years ahead, it is crucial to recognize that the built environment holds significant potential in addressing the most pressing existential crises humanity has ever encountered.
So, whether you are in college deciding on a major, considering a career change or have been in the field for decades, remember that finding joy in the MEP industry is possible and this can be a rewarding career path. Embrace the journey, celebrate the wins and take pride in the meaningful impact you have on the world.
Your path may not always be clear, but by finding satisfaction in the challenges and appreciating the unique contributions you bring, you can discover true joy in the MEP industry.
Justin Bowker, PE, has been part of the engineering team at TDIndustries since 2001. He became the manager of this team in 2009 and vice president of engineering in 2016. Under his leadership, the team challenges itself to harness technical approaches to provide focused value to the owner on design/assist and design/build projects.