Reflections on engineering excellence in the 21st Century

Peter Laughton
Peter Laughton addressing an annual luncheon of the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers.
By Peter J. Laughton

In June 1997, I delivered a convocation address to engineering graduates of all disciplines at Ryerson Polytechnic University (now Ryerson University), titled: Towards Engineering Excellence in the 21st Century.

Given that some 20 years have passed, I took this anniversary as an opportunity to review and reflect on the relevance of the convocation address in today’s setting. I concluded that I would deliver a similar address today to young graduating engineers, with text reference to the current millennium. However, in doing so, the following would be included:

  • Expand, emphasize and stress today’s environmental issues before us.
  • Expand, emphasize and stress the need for sustainability.
  • Stress the need to hone analytical skills to meet the challenges of complex problem solving.
  • Address the issue of climate change and the necessity for graduates to participate in this area. They need to bring about a concrete resolution, with foreseeable tangible results. Thus, they will leave a constructive legacy for our time and for future millennia.
  • Emphasize the need to actively support and become involved in associations and societies related to one’s engineering discipline.

For those of you who are in the early throes of your engineering careers and for those who are mentoring young engineers, I would like to share the following excerpts from my 1997 address, which I believe are still sound and relevant today:

“Some qualities may never be part of future course work material and may not be the subject of direct examination grade as you move on in life. I am speaking about dedication, integrity and hard work. These are the basic ingredients for your professional reputation, and hence, your status in the engineering community.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

The latest environmental engineering news direct to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.

“As you enter the business world, the immediate challenge will be to apply your acquired skills. However, it must be recognized that the next millennium will belong to those engineers who are willing to embrace and accept rapid change, who know where they are going, who are extremely competent and knowledgeable in their area of expertise, and, as well, to those who strive for a high standard of excellence.

“As a leader and a strategic thinker, you must be a team player in multi-disciplined situations and you must be able to demonstrate a high level of understanding of social, economic and environmental issues.

“Your success as an engineer will also be tied directly to your communication skills. This skillset must be honed to the same degree as your technical and business skills.

“The aforementioned attributes will not be an option but an absolute necessity – they are inextricably linked.

“In an increasingly complex and demanding world, you must be flexible and prepared to rethink and readjust your goals. We are living in an era of dramatic changes that are taking place in all aspects of society. The sweeping changes in the marketplace are global and they are affecting the everyday lives of us all. The economies of the world are undergoing major transformations.

“Canada and Canadians must compete in the global economy to prosper. As we rapidly undergo this shift to globalization, it will be necessary for engineers, in the coming century, to further expand the societal dimensions of their work and to resolve challenges through holistic approaches.

“During a recent trip, I was browsing through a copy of a prominent airline inflight magazine and came across the following statement which I think addresses the importance of remaining on this cutting edge: ‘Technology is reshaping our lives, and those who miss even one step are in danger of never catching up.’

“A commitment to keeping pace with advances in technology will be a prerequisite requirement for success in the next century. It has been said that the best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.

“In order to see us through this global transformation and to maintain our country as one of the best places in the world to live, it will be your responsibility, in the next century, not to just identify problems and solutions but to bring about concrete results. You must follow up on ‘work of conviction’ to bring about tangible results and in doing so leave a legacy of constructive change.

“You and other members of your generation will inherit and have entrusted to you a key role in the stewardship of our society. I would urge you to demonstrate leadership and initiative now and establish realistic and achievable goals that will lead to a sustainable society, thus ensuring a sustainable future for all Canadians. There will be continued concern for the environment on the local, national and global level, which will extend well into the next century.

“In closing, I would like to stress the need to share a common direction and sense of community with those around us. An author once wrote and if I may paraphrase: When you see geese heading south for the winter flying along in a ‘V’ formation, it has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in a ‘V’ formation, the whole flock adds greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

“The translation explained was that people who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling on the thrust of one another.”

Peter J. Laughton, M.Eng., B.A., Ph.D. (Honoris Causa), P.Eng., BCEE, FCSCE, is a retired consulting engineer, a past president of the Water Environment Association of Ontario and long time member of ES&E Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s June 2017 issue.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here