Lessons learned

Civil engineering class of '67

Members of the Class of 1967 visit Essex College, formerly the engineering building: (L-R) Philip Waier, Joseph Cohoon, Henry Regts, David Strelchuk and Harold Horneck. Norm Becker not pictured.

In Canada’s centennial year, 13 civil engineering graduates from Ontario’s newest public university entered into an unsuspecting world to compete for internship positions against those who graduated from older, more prestigious institutions.

In 2017, six members of the class returned to campus to rekindle friendships, poke fun at their convincing old men disguises, and offer the following observations and suggestions to those who are following in their footsteps.

Engineers are the primary life-support providers for the seven billion messy people crowded on planet Earth. They rely upon us to put science into action to satisfy their rapacious needs and to accommodate the estimated one billion newbies added to this planet every 12 to 15 years.

Their expectation is that these needs be satisfied not only quickly, safely and affordably, but sustainably as well. Welcome to our busy profession. Our effectiveness as engineering practitioners depends upon our ability to research, develop and apply the newest scientific discoveries and technological advances wisely.

This wisdom cannot be learned in a classroom. It must be earned in the real world from those who understand the importance of teamwork and have learned how to navigate the mine field of regulations, codes and standards applicable to all engineering work. The engineer must understand how to balance the responsibilities imposed on every project with regard to its safety, performance, cost and scheduling.

What we need to earn this wisdom is the decency to treat everyone in our workplace with courtesy and respect; the honesty to acknowledge that they possess unique knowledge and skills that we don’t; the humility to admit what we don’t know; and the maturity not to make promises we can’t keep.

Our profession is unique among other regulated professions in Canada and among other engineering professions in the world. First, we are required to act at all times with fidelity to public needs and to put the public’s welfare ahead of the interest of our employers and clients.

Second, we are more strictly regulated than engineering practitioners in virtually every other jurisdiction in the world. And third, we wear an iron ring on the little finger of our working hand not as a trophy of our profession’s greatest achievements, but as a constant reminder of our failures and our failings.

Canada is the fourth largest exporter of engineering services in the world. This is a testament to the legacy of trust and respect that generations of Canadian professional engineers have earned for their technical skills, integrity and professionalism. A Canadian professional engineering licence is a passport to the world.

Our effectiveness as members of a learned profession depends not only on our ability to understand and apply the laws of physics, which are finite and constant. It also depends on our ability to understand and comply with the proliferation of laws, regulations, codes and standards imposed on our work, which are in a constant state of flux.

For example, the Ontario Building Code, which was first introduced in 1975 to promote public safety through the application of appropriate uniform building standards, has been steadily expanded and enhanced over the last 40 years. It now references more than 1,000 provincial, national, U.S. and international standards. These were not prepared by engineers for engineers; but by committees representing diverse stakeholder groups. Interpreting the requirements of these esoteric standards is an onerous task.

Engineering students, faculty and practitioners who undervalue their communication skills, handicap their career options and their effectiveness as Professional Engineers. More is expected of us than merely to crunch numbers, prepare drawings and drive computers. We must be able to communicate in the workplace effectively. We owe it to ourselves, our employers, our clients and the people whose safety depends upon us, to upgrade our language skills on a continuous basis so that we can say what we mean and mean what we say, proficiently.

Arrogance and ignorance are every engineer’s worst enemies. Humility, integrity, teamwork and continuing education are our best allies. Absolute safety is an absolute myth. Given enough time, everything we engineer will wear out, rust out, break down or fall down. As engineers, we are held to high standards of safety, durability, affordability and sustainability. We need the expertise to be able to assess how, where and when an engineered system is most likely to
fail and to provide the safety systems, redundancies and backup systems to prevent a foreseeable failure of one component or sub-system, from causing a titanic disaster.

The Civil Class of ’67 started their engineering careers with a slide rule and a book of six-place logarithm tables. They not only invested the time, money and effort needed to utilize the best available technology, but pioneered the development and use of computer technology and satellite imagery to enhance their engineering work. New engineering graduates cannot foresee the technological advances that they will need to master during their career.

However, like the Class of ’67, they will be required to do so. All 13 members of the University of Windsor’s Civil Class of ’67 have accomplished more during their varied and lengthy professional careers than they ever thought possible. They are grateful for the quality of the education they received at their alma mater, which provided them with foundations that were strong enough to support their hopes and dreams. They succeeded because they chose realistic career paths that suited their personal interests and abilities.

The Civil Class of ’67 wishes the engineering students at the University of Windsor every success in their professional careers and personal lives. Their success will depend not only upon their brain power, but also upon their horsepower and staying power.

This article is featured in the 2018 issue of Windsor Engineering (WE).