The multiple paths of engineering


Engineering careers may span a lifetime. For others, it’s a launch pad. Degrees in hand, experience under their belts, they shift course. Some manoeuvre strategically, others serendipitously. There’s a rainbow of reasons: broader interests, unexpected opportunities, family situations. Is it true that once an engineer, always an engineer?

“As a young civil engineer, I believed I had a responsibility to help make a better world,” says Doug Salloum. “Ensuring clean water and easy transportation were concrete measures. And civil engineering seemed the discipline with the greatest impact on basic human needs.”

Following undergraduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Salloum spent seven years in the areas of transportation and municipal engineering. He credits frustration for expanding his focus.

“One of an engineer’s strengths is also a weakness,” he says. “Engineers are attentive to detail, but not good with long-term vision. We’re good at doing something, but not at why we do it.”

With gentle self-deprecation, Salloum admits he asked why a lot. Though annoying to others, his need to understand spurred a shift to finance. While earning his MBA from McGill University, Salloum strategized. Wanting to move money from the haves to the have nots, he’d have to learn the language of people with money and gain a veneer of respectability. Hence, five years as a banker. After which, as planned, he joined an NGO involved in micro-finance, working on projects in Bangladesh, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

“Designing and helping implement sustainable financial solutions for small and micro-businesses to be independent of donor money was my niche,” he states. “A business with a good product and good management always benefits from affordable credit.”

I learned as an engineer that I can solve any problem. That gave me the confidence to pursue this new career
— Charise Jewell

In the following years, Salloum set up a venture capital fund, financed small environmentally supportive businesses in developing countries with the World Bank’s International Finance Corp., and furthered the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Green Municipal Fund initiatives. He accepted his role as Executive Director of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in 2009.

“Vision has been an issue throughout my career and I believe civil engineers should be leaders in sustainable infrastructure,” he explains. “Unlike 30 years ago, civil engineers now have a larger vision of what they’re doing, the environment and their role in society. Our nature is to solve problems. It’s optimistic to believe we can make things better, but that’s who we are.”

Building the future

Caroline Harvey applies a dogged optimism toward her work at Montreal’s Dawson College. A professor in the Civil Engineering Technology program, she teaches introductory and advanced courses in surveying.

“The students teach me,” she says. “They don’t all understand the same way, because they don’t all have the same background, so I’m learning to adjust. Some get it quickly, others wait for me to explain differently. When some don’t do well in exams it’s hard for me. I wonder what I can do differently, or do more of. They mustn’t lose trust in me, or themselves. We’ll find a way and move on.”

Like Salloum, Harvey holds a degree in Civil Engineering. As a McGill University student, she tutored fellow students. She also juggled her course load with work for a construction company, which she joined upon graduating. Over several years, as her family grew to include four children, she shifted to part-time work. And when not in construction, she exercised her entrepreneurial streak with a small business in the sports industry and with a landscape architecture firm.

Five years ago, ready to increase her work load, but wanting flexibility with time, she cold-called Dawson College. Absolutely, they needed her. And to teach her favourite topic, surveying.

“I love teaching more than I imagined,” she says. “It was like doing my master’s, preparing something worthwhile for my students, deciding what’s most important to teach over 12 weeks and how best to get through it. Every year I say, “this is the best,” but the next year I change it. I’m learning too.”

Harvey’s focus is now clearly on teaching. She’s keen to learn more about pedagogy. Studying advanced surveying techniques will enable her to keep her students current on the latest technology. Even when visiting construction sites, she tries to include them.

“I tell my students I love surveying,” she says, “but I’m not saying it’s easy. Liking something doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is a tough field. They need to learn that too.”

The problem solver

Like Harvey, Charise Jewell’s current career grew from a need for flexibility. But, as a parenting consultant, course facilitator, freelance writer and professional speaker, her work bears little resemblance to anything she’s done as a robotics engineer since graduating from McGill University.

“As a kid I loved roller coasters and thought it would be the coolest job in the world to design them,” Jewell says. “So, I had an aha moment that I should go into mechanical engineering where I could build and create things. On my career path, I’ve chosen things that interest and appeal to me.”

Jewell describes her career shift as doing a 180. Leaving a full-time management position after having her third child, she began her blog Crunch Compass. She offers parenting advice on behavioural issues, menu planning and a wealth of related topics.

“People with children younger than my oldest would ask me questions,” says Jewell, who for years has written short fiction. “That’s what new parents do. And they told me how helpful it was. That’s why I started writing my blog.”

From that first initiative, Jewell began meeting with parents wanting more information. That led to establishing Mommy Connections and working as a parenting consultant, providing private sessions, workshops and presentations. Add to that, a fledgling career as a freelance writer.

“Along with the rest, I try to write about technical topics,” she says. “I still have a passion for robotics. The stereotype is that engineers can’t write, and there’s a need for someone to write about cool stuff in an appealing way.”

“I learned as an engineer that I can solve any problem. That gave me the confidence to pursue this new career. Being an engineer is one of the things I am, it’s a state of mind. I’m proud to be an engineer. It gives my kids something extra to be excited about.”

This article is taken from Les carrières de l’ingénierie 2015 (namely Careers in Engineering)