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Professional Engineers Day

Reflections on 45 years in engineering and some advice for
the ‘younger’ engineer.

By Steve Gardner, P.E., SME – RM (Posted August 5, 2020)

This week, Professional Engineers Day allowed me to reflect on 45 years in the profession and more than 40 years as a Professional Engineer. I don’t think my career is extraordinary, but it has been an interesting life so far. I’ve made some good choices and some bad choices. I’ve had some good luck and some bad luck. I’ve made my share of mistakes. And I will probably make more; I hope to have quite a few years left.

Mining engineer

Steve, in one of his early Professional Engineer roles.

Throughout my years, there have been many lessons, and I would like to share some of them for the benefit of those entering the field.

From my experiences in mining, I have learned the importance of starting any discussion, meeting, or event with a relevant safety share. Life can change at the drop of a hat, literally. When in the field, construction site, plant, or mine, always make sure that you have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and take the necessary precautions. Start every day with a personal safety share, and always be aware of your surroundings.

I had a variety of experiences growing up on a tobacco farm in south-central Kentucky. My father set a lifestyle example with his character and work ethic. My parents encouraged me in all of my interests. I always knew I wanted to be an engineer, but I didn’t realize exactly what a Professional Engineer was. One of the best things that happened to me was meeting the Professional Engineer who became my lifelong mentor. He encouraged me to become active in professional organizations and pursue licensure. My new boss’s professional demeanor and way of approaching problems became another example. He instilled in me the integrity that I hold most dear, and I hope that I have been able to pass that along by example. Finding a mentor who has high standards and ethics is key to a long career as a Professional Engineer.

Another lesson that I learned: The only constant is that life changes. After I finished my degree in Agricultural Engineering, by one of those twists of fate, I went into mining in 1975 during the middle of the energy crisis. In my wildest imagination, I had never thought about coal or a mining career. And it was agriculture that led me there. Within a short period, the energy crisis and coal boom were over. Steel companies started filing bankruptcies and going out of business or shutting down operations. The faces of the steel and mining industries changed.

I soon realized I needed to make a change. While I was working in mining, I was exposed to numerous consulting engineers. That lifestyle fascinated me. Seeing the engineering consultants from Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, or other cities take on projects and problems that society faced fascinated me. At that point, I decided that was my career path. The variety of work, travel, and exposure to a diverse group of technical experts was appealing. Knowing many consultants had advanced degrees — Master’s degrees and Ph.D. s — I decided I needed at least a Master’s. Having several years’ experience working in mining, I decided on a Master’s in Mining Engineering.

The whole takeaway from my roundabout story is to demonstrate how life can take different paths than anticipated. Many people can plan out their lives and follow a path. From the tobacco patch, I learned the meaning of “a long row to hoe.” From the coal mines, I learned the camaraderie of miners who work in the earth and the societal importance of mining.

Ten takeaways that I have for students, young engineers, and my daughter (now an engineer) from my time are:

1) Keep in touch with classmates, teachers, professors, and friends. Social media makes it easier but do it judiciously.

2) Seek out professional licensure, ASAP.

3) Maintain membership in professional organizations.

4) Never be afraid to change. As Winston Churchill said: “Those who never change their minds never change anything.”

5) Find a mentor. Better yet, find more than one. And after that, become a mentor.

6) Be persistent. Don’t give up easily.

7) Get involved in your community, wherever you live and work.

8) READ! Life is continuing education. Never stop learning.

9) Give back! Make a difference.

10) Love what you do! Do what you love!

Professional Engineer

Steve and his daughter, now a Professional Engineer as well.

Another thing I am proud of is having a daughter who is a Professional Engineer. I never guessed she would be interested in engineering or that she would choose mining engineering. After graduation, she began her career at an underground gold mine in Nevada. I was very proud when she received her Professional Engineer certification and when we both went through the Order of the Engineer ceremony. We proudly wear our rings every day. The ring is a daily reminder to me of being a Professional Engineer, our Code of Ethics, and the Engineers’ Creed. I have been honored to serve on the Kentucky Board of Licensure and try to give back to the profession and society.

I am most honored that I am able to say I am a Professional Engineer and feel I have made a difference. The world demand is growing, and engineers will be at the forefront of providing sustainable global solutions. I wish everyone the best of luck in whatever you do, and I hope that you lead an interesting life … and remember to do it safely in these challenging times.