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90% of Municipal Engineering is Communication

I’m regularly reminded of the importance of communication as a part of municipal as I provide updates on projects and operations to decision-makers. Unfortunately, most university programs in engineering, and many junior level positions fail to prepare graduates and young engineers for this reality. Design work, physics, materials, mechanics, chemistry, and hydraulics are foundational aspects of an engineering career, but success comes through effective communication.

The ability of an engineer to convey important information such as risks, options, budgets, issues and progress to decision-makers at a appropriate level of complexity for the audience is an art, and the ability to facilitatethe conversion of that information into useful action is critical to project, program and operational success.

Communication skills for municipal engineers must include:

  • a high level of public speaking ability
  • excellent grammar and report writing
  • storytelling with clarity
  • listening to achieve the best possible project/program/operational outcomes
  • breaking down and clarifying assumptions
  • understanding and communicating roles and responsibilities

A classic quote I’ve heard twice in the past week, in totally different contexts is “whoever tells the best story wins”. Understanding what “winning” is for a municipal engineer is key to unlocking this quote. The APEGBC Code of Ethics gives a great framework for unpacking this. An engineer’s priorities for communication should be based on the following items in the code of ethics, (paraphrased):

  • Hold paramount the public health and safety, protection of the environment and workplace safety.
  • Opinions should be based on knowledge
  • Fully disclose any conflict of interests
  • Give fair and honest professional comment
  • Present clearly to employers and clients the possible consequences if professional decisions or judgements are overruled or disregarded.
  • Report hazardous, illegal or unethical behaviour
  • Extend public knowledge of engineering and protect the professional from misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

All of these items require an engineer to tell a compelling story, to communicate their professional opinion, report accurately, or indicate the implications if their advice is ignored. Failing to communicate effectively may adversely impact an engineer’s ability to do his or her job, and may make it difficult to comply with the code of ethics.

Did you see what I did with the title of this post? I made up a statistic, based on personal experience, and backed it up with a short compelling story. Writing this blog is part of practicing the art of communication, I also read books of communication, one I’m currently reading is “Thank You for Arguing“, which I highly recommend.

All engineers aspiring to work for local government, either as a consultant or as an employee of the local government must recognize the importance of communication, and be prepared to display their communication skills to their prospective employers. Employers of municipal engineers need to push harder for excellence in communication as the benchmark for these positions – in this age of social media and Internet searching, it is no longer enough for a municipal engineer to have adequate communication skills, if you want to “win” you need to tell the best story.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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