IZADRI VAN NIEKERK GIBB’s supportive environment allows young engineers to express their opinions and explore alternative approaches
The civil engineering sector presents daily challenges that engineers, regardless of their experience, must overcome.
These challenges can be technical, contractual or even outside their comfort zone, but embracing them and finding solutions are at the core of engineering, says engineering consultancy GIBB civil design engineer Izadri van Niekerk.
However, young engineers sometimes struggle to apply theoretical knowledge practically, owing to the complexity and integration of activities across disciplines. In such cases, experienced senior professionals often aid young engineers, drawing on their own expertise gained over time.
Their extensive experience, particularly on site, provides valuable insights that cannot be gained solely from books, Van Niekerk says, noting that working with such experienced individuals broadens the perspectives and thinking of young engineers.
However, she states that the responsibility also falls on the young engineers.
“Sometimes, they may forget that it is not solely the mentor’s duty to guide them towards professional registration. Young engineers need to take initiative and actively identify areas where they lack experience. “By bringing these gaps to the attention of their mentor and line manager, they can seek opportunities to gain the necessary exposure and knowledge required for their registration process.”
For Van Niekerk, public speaking was a challenge. GIBB assisted her with this by enrolling her in a “Toastmasters” course, which helped her improve her public speaking skills and gain confidence so that she could effectively communicate with contractors and clients.
GIBB offers lunchtime training sessions for a comprehensive learning experience for young engineers.
“The lunchtime training sessions provided a valuable and informal platform for us to present and discuss various topics related to our work in civil engineering,” Van Niekerk says, noting that these sessions covered a range of subjects, including design concepts and practical lessons learned from ongoing construction projects.
“It was a practical way of addressing technical and soft issues. Participating in these sessions helped us develop better self-management skills and provided exposure to different aspects of the field,” she elaborates.
She highlights GIBB’s “supportive environment”, which enables young engineers to express their opinions and explore alternative approaches, even if they may not always succeed.
“We have a robust quality system in place to thoroughly review all work before it is released, which ensures that any critical errors or mistakes made by a young engineer are identified and corrected before reaching clients or contractors.”
This environment is conducive to fostering innovation, as insights from young engineers can often lead to “valuable insights for the entire team and potentially change traditional practices”, Van Niekerk adds.
“I strongly believe that young engineers can make a positive impact within the team as long as they are encouraged to voice their opinions without fear.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a significant shift in the industry, with virtual platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, becoming the primary mode of interaction for all engineers. It is crucial for young engineers to be well versed in these platforms and comfortable with video communication.
“In the past, I had the privilege of receiving face-to-face mentorship from senior engineers who would explain concepts by drawing them on paper. “This traditional approach had its advantages, as the visualisation of concepts on paper made them easier to understand.”
The shift to virtual work has introduced a challenge for young engineers, as they may veer off track while working on a task and realise their mistake only upon submission for review.
“The onus lies with supervisors to be more direct when managing young engineers; daily virtual check-ins would enable a supervisor to identify errors and provide guidance. Our design team schedules regular face-to-face meetings during which we discuss design and contractual issues, and our young engineers are included in these meetings to increase their exposure and enhance their learning,” Van Niekerk elaborates.
This obstacle, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has significantly affected the working and learning processes for young engineers, says Van Niekerk, who notes that, overall, the pandemic has “had a substantial impact on the industry”.
However, as time progresses, she is confident that “there is a gradual return to a sense of normalcy”.
“It is encouraging to see the industry recovering and the mentoring programmes being reinstated, following the Covid-19 pandemic,” Van Niekerk comments.
For aspiring civil engineers, there are various disciplines to choose from, including roads, water, sewage, bridge design and structural engineering.
Van Niekerk advises young civil engineers to identify their field of interest early on in their careers to gain relevant work experience in their desired career specialty.
While it is understood that young engineers may not have extensive knowledge initially, they are expected to learn quickly; therefore, overcoming the fear of asking questions is essential, as it is more productive to seek clarification when struggling rather than wasting time.
“It is important for young engineers to understand that no question is considered stupid, and it is better to acknowledge and address knowledge gaps rather than assume understanding,” she concludes.