• Drew Wilson


Who are the civil engineers who will impact the most meaningful social, environmental, economic and sustainable change in South Africa? What’s the difference between a good engineer and a great one? Surrounded by so many respected built environment professionals at the recent inauguration of Brian Downie as the newest President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), I challenged myself with these questions. Are we what South Africa needs and do we have what it takes to encourage the next generation of great engineers?

From left to right: Drew Wilson (Eco Eng - Founder) and Brian Downie (President - South African Institution of Civil Engineering) at the recent presidential inauguration event in Johannesburg.

I have abbreviations behind my name and so do many of my peers and colleagues. Graduates leaving tertiary education have slogged for years to achieve these hallmarks of a professional pedigree. But what do they really mean? Formal education is necessary, of course, but in my mind it doesn’t make a great engineer. It’s not technical know-how or experience either. Sitting with my mentor Brian and congratulating him on achieving a wonderful milestone in his career, I’m certain its often those overlooked ‘softer’ skills.

Interpersonal finesse

Lack of skills in South Africa is a hot topic so naturally it came up in the research findings of my Master’s thesis. 80% of civil engineers said they believed trained professionals needed to focus on skills development. What surprises me is that this figure is almost as high as their thoughts on unskilled labour (84%) who would obviously benefit massively from training initiatives. What are the professionals lacking?

The building professional of today requires more than just the experience, qualifications, training and skills promoted through our industry bodies. In my opinion, on-the-job exposure is crucial to a well-rounded engineer but isn’t weighted as heavily as those hard-earned degrees and qualifications. Personally this has formed the foundation of my career.

Isn’t our primary purpose to ‘engineer’ practical solutions to alleviate issues faced by clients and communities? It seems obvious that without the interpersonal skills to translate what we know, we’ll find ourselves stumped at the first hurdle. It’s about being able to work with people, communicate effectively and resolve conflict… without a textbook.

Classroom mentality

Choosing a mentor is more than just finding a compatible professional to guide you through career highs and lows. If you’re looking for technical expertise, look to your manager or director to teach you. But remember, a technical classroom mentality will only get you so far. You’ll get more out of a mentor who can teach you people skills. The built environment is very detail-orientated, however behind all that red tape is your client and, ultimately, the community who must live with your project in the real world.

Truly understanding the needs of the people you’re serving is the first step to driving social, environmental, economic and sustainable change in South Africa. It’s knowing the right questions to ask – whether you’re sitting across the table from your client or under a tree with a community leader – and listening, before leaping to problem-solving.

Relationships built on trust

One-to-one mentorship has taught me these soft skills and I continue to learn every day. Owning up to a costly, programme-delaying mistake with an apology letter was one of the earliest things Brian taught me. He advised me to acknowledge my mistake, apologise and act fast. He even signed the apology letter on my behalf; I knew he ‘had my back’ but also that I couldn’t let him down!

A great mentor will advise and guide their mentee on how to deal appropriately with conflict and change on a project, which is inevitable. The wisdom of a mentor is to teach their mentee humility, knowing when to take responsibility and how to stand by a decision despite external pressures.

Ethics, integrity and humility go hand-in-hand with mentorship. An engineer is often a mediator between all sides of a project - client, contractor and stakeholders. When communication breaks down so does trust. As engineers our default is to think contractually, perhaps sometimes looking for a loophole. Instead, as I learnt that day, putting your hands up and admitting fault goes a long way in regaining confidence and trust. A good mentor will show you this aspect of problem-solving, not the technical ways you could or should do something!

Onwards and upwards

I’m excited that a prestigious organisation such as SAICE now has Brian at its helm. His inauguration speech ‘It’s a New World’ touched on his ambitions to bring the industry into the new age of technology. And, importantly, mentorship of soft skills will be even more crucial in our evolving world of automatisation and new digital approaches to engineering!

I feel privileged to have been mentored by Brian over the course of my career. He has given me so much more than just technical know-how and on the job training. I cherish the long discussions we’ve had - and will continue to have - on all aspects of life, not just engineering. Mentors in your personal life are often people who you respect and talk openly with about anything. Why should your professional mentor be any different?

From left to right: Drew Wilson (Eco Eng - Founder), Linda Downie and Brian Downie (President - South African Institution of Civil Engineering) at the recent presidential inauguration event in Johannesburg.

What do you think about mentorship and fostering soft skills in construction? Get in touch and let me know your thoughts!

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