Engineers are problem solvers by nature — ready to dissect a problem and reveal the best solution available. But what if the problem is multilayered or involves stakeholders from differing industries and backgrounds? Are we training the next generation of engineers properly to adapt to the ever-changing environment we live in now?

The traditional education path for engineers begins with a bachelor’s degree in a specialty field, like electrical, chemical or civil. This starting point allows students to submerge themselves in one area of study, surrounded by others engaged in the same subject matter. However, in today’s climate of new technologies, evolving industry focuses and the rise of smart cities, being experienced in a single field is no longer ideal.

Diversification — the New Essential Skill

No project is ever the same as a previous one. Team members change, technology preferences change and client expectations change. Even a project as structured as a substation design for two similar utilities will come together differently based on design philosophies and needs. This is why some of the most valuable education engineers in today’s market will receive is from a diverse team, both internally and externally.

For engineering firms like Burns & McDonnell, seeking diverse opinions across industries can be as simple as walking down the hallway to another department — or even via hands-on experience with other professionals on the site of a complex project. Engineers are encouraged to think outside the box of traditional solutions, to experiment with technologies across department and industry lines, and especially to voice their findings with other engineers.

Sharing experiences and unique solutions also helps open an engineer’s eyes to projects and opportunities that spark an interest. By moving away from the traditional approach of being singularly focused on an area like transformer design, for example, diversification is becoming a more valued trait. An engineer with diverse experience needs less training to begin a new project and can be brought up to speed quicker — saving time on project schedules and saving the client money.

The Emergence of the Next-Generation Engineer

Through the rise of smart cities, employees with diversified engineering careers are finding a nitch for their problem-solving nature. Smart cities can present themselves as a giant puzzle for most clients, and engineers with varied project experience are able to see the pieces and look at the picture holistically.

Extensive backgrounds working on a team also help engineers with their newest role — stakeholder management. Smart cities want to connect our world, which means bringing a wide variety of people with potentially divergent goals and concerns to the table. The next-generation engineer can listen to each stakeholder’s viewpoint, merge that list with the client’s expectations and identify scenarios to address and achieve as many goals as possible.

This holistic, diversified approach to the engineering career can also benefit someone other than the client — engineers themselves. Not only will there always be another problem to solve, engineers can know that their efforts are benefitting communities, spurring economic growth and new development to improve the lives and safety of the public. By seeing the big picture, engineers can know their work matters and serves a purpose.


Engineers who embrace the challenge of diversifying their experience speak to innovation, passion and hard work.

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Brad Jensen is a senior consultant for grid modernization and distribution planning at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. He has extensive experience in electric distribution engineering efforts such as volt/VAR optimization, distribution capacity analysis for distributed energy resource interconnection, grid modernization, protective relaying and controls, and the design of 120- to 345-kV substations. He serves as a transformer specialist and has a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, power and energy from Iowa State University.