Fellow Plumbing Industry Professionals and AYPs: For the last several months, I’ve been privileged to serve as the American Society of Plumbing Engineers’ (ASPE) Young Professional Liaison (AYP) to the society. During this time, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of young engineers, professionals, and college students and hear numerous insights as to the latest trends and opportunities that are shaping the upcoming generations within ASPE and the plumbing engineering and design industry. I’ve also had the unique occasion to speak with many of our experienced industry members and hope to bridge some of the gaps within our industry.
When I started my first job as an engineer back in 2008, the job market was not nearly as robust as it is now. I still remember surviving two rounds of layoffs early in my career due to the Great Recession as many of the early “Generation Y” or millennials also remember these difficult times. From a macro level, I am dumbfounded at how strong the job market is now. Many AYP members, especially those graduating college (considered “Generation Z”) around the start of the recession, note how extraordinarily busy we are as an industry at this particular moment. Many of us are almost nervous for the next slow down, most likely due to being conditioned to think about this possibility based on how our careers started.
A telling sign to me is the conversations I have with college students. Several years ago, many college students were looking for employment upon graduation, and now most college students I speak with now have an opportunity in-hand well before graduation! The numbers back this up. An article I read recently indicated that unemployment is at 3.8 percent and falling. By all accounts, this is one of the strongest economies most of us have witnessed, and it offers countless opportunities for the youngest generations older professionals alike.
The other trend that is worth noting is the changing demographics of the plumbing engineering industry mostly due to the incoming generations joining the workforce. The number of female and minority professionals is increasing within ASPE, which brings a host of opportunities to those employers that can harness this new wave. However, the biggest demographic trend within ASPE that continues to occur with more regularity is the percentage of college graduates joining the industry. The earliest ASPE members and plumbing designers were amazing people that laid the groundwork for the later generations. One of the most amazing facts is that many of these early giants were not degreed engineers, rather they tended to be drafters and/or CAD-technicians that learned plumbing. I suspect many mechanical engineers thought plumbing was beneath them or they preferred to focus on HVAC systems.
However, plumbing technology and codes were not stagnant. Rather, the industry became more complex and the requirements of the day-to-day job increased. Industry challenges, such as Legionella, medical/dental gas, purified water, and high-rise building design, have all added to the complexity of plumbing engineering. While correlation does not equal causation, it does seem the industry inadvertently responded to this need.
Based on 2018 numbers, it appears that over 90 percent of AYP members have a Bachelor of Science degree in a STEM field (e.g. mechanical engineering, architectural engineering, civil engineering, or even architecture). This drastic swing to college-educated engineers leading plumbing design and engineering can only be positive in promoting public health and safety.
While the opportunities and capability of the youngest generation have been on an exponential trajectory, there is also a large growth opportunity for both the youngest and oldest generations. The challenge is the way two different groups of folks work together, especially when there are minimal instances of shared backgrounds. Specifically, I’m referring to the ever-mentioned difficulty of Baby Boomers, Echo Boomers, and Generation X of working with Generation Z and millennials, and vice versa. There is a plethora of articles, blogs, podcasts, and books about how older generations should work with their younger counterparts because the younger generation is so different than generations before. I remember seeing a chart recently which indicated the different ways that the various generations learn, like to receive feedback, and their preferred methods and frequency of communication and care from their elders. It was interesting to see the generalities, but it is my belief that these are exactly that: generalities. And generalities should NOT be used or referred to on a micro (i.e. individual) basis.
I’ve met countless millennials in our industry who have indicated that they do not feel like they are a millennial and actually identify more with older generations! It’s worth noting here that this is a clear case of two bell curves describing a population better than an averaged vertical counter (i.e. generalizing entire generations into a single adjective. Refer to the visual.
This futile trend to generalize generations into pools is best shown in a recent conversation I had with a Generation Y counterpart. She was venting to me how she was frustrated with the lack of respect she was getting from the youngest designers from Generation Z. Putting this in context, in general, almost every generation during the history of the world finds the older generations too slow moving or too established. And, the younger generation is found to be not respectful enough, not patient enough, or unwilling to put in the hard work it takes to be successful. The Greatest Generation complained about Baby Boomers, which in turn complained about Generation X, which in turn complains about millennials and Generation Z, and vice versa in the opposite direction! This fact will never change because it seems to be such a normal part of human behavior – we look to place people in their pot or group because we are tribal by nature.
As a student of history, the biggest difference I see between then and now is that technology in many ways has isolated us from each other. I’ve heard many complaints about how addicted to phones young generations are, but I have witnessed as many older generations looking at their phones over having a conversation at lunch. I’ve seen plenty of experienced (grey-haired) engineers trying to have a coordination meeting via email, rather than pick up the phone or walk or drive to a meeting. Technology, while a powerful driver, is also another challenge for us, regardless of generation, to manage. And, in many ways, it has become a barrier to effective communication.
The solution to this is that rather than treating people a certain way based on what generation they are part of, we all need to take the time to actually get to know the individuals we are working with. Rather than focusing on our differences as groups, take the time to sit down for coffee or lunch with a colleague and get to know them, preferably without technology present. Of course, there will be differences, but these should be celebrated on an individual basis. I imagine many will be surprised to learn how similar we are in spite of the differences.
I challenge you all to take a moment this week, and get to know a coworker you haven’t connected with before. Learn something new. The, next week, do the same with someone else. Is this a bit corny? Most likely. But, we’ve all connected with someone in the past that we originally didn’t realize we had a lot in common with. That’s where it starts. We must get to know each other beyond our work function, and from there, the possibilities are endless.
The road to somewhere better starts with one small step, no matter our age, background, job title, or technology prowess. Let’s expand our networks and provide collaborative solutions rather than objections. You won’t regret it and neither will your older or younger counterparts. I look forward to talking with you and getting to know you in the near future.