Literacy skills in engineering and why they are needed in the workplace

Contributed by Frank Mimnagh

Chartered civil engineer

Fri 26 Feb 2021

Working as a civil engineer, I use literacy skills in engineering every day, but I don’t always need to use maths. Maybe that surprises you. I certainly did a doubletake seeing it written down!

London Underground, The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, The Forth Bridge. I could list countless others. These are familiar parts of our transport network and, as we go about our everyday lives, we don’t often reflect that they were once major infrastructure projects.

The ‘number crunching’ involved in large-scale construction is incredible, and the engineers who design each part of a structure use complex maths. But equally important is the quality of the spoken and written information passing between those working in engineering, i.e. literacy skills in engineering.

And it’s the case right from the beginning of our career. Exam success at the undergraduate level depends greatly on an engineer’s ability to comprehend intricately written questions, which they should have already learned by absorbing information from engineering and other subject textbooks. It’s a skill that needs developing from a very young age.

Demonstrating professional competence

After working as a graduate engineer for a while, we usually seek a Chartership with a professional body, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). All Chartered engineers are registered with the Engineering Council. In essence, Chartership is professional recognition and the acknowledgement by peers of an engineer’s ability. Their competence is assessed against a series of ‘Attributes’ to gain Chartered status. Here, perhaps more than at any other time in their career, the engineer’s reading, writing, listening and comprehension skills are put to the test.

To demonstrate their competence in all areas, including health and safety, the environment, design, technical knowledge and construction, the engineer working towards becoming Chartered writes a series of reports based on their knowledge and experience. They send the completed reports and examples of their work to a supervising engineer who judges the content against each Attribute. Only if the content is well written and contains relevant points will the engineer advance on their path towards Chartership.

Communicating ideas and interpreting information

Practically, everything that engineers do comes from ideas. When we have an idea about how we can build something safer, better or faster, we need to share it with others to bring it to fruition. Quite often, we use drawings, sketches, or models to communicate the idea; however, engineers will turn to the written word when a more in-depth description is required.

Engineers regularly have to make decisions based on the information received. It could be a written report, numerical data files, a series of drawings or all of these. To progress the project, we must read the information, interpret its meaning and summarise the key points before reaching a conclusion. In practical terms, this process is only an extension of the reading and comprehension skills we learn at school.

Giving direction and explaining calculations

Engineers provide direction to others working in design and construction. Out on site, we sometimes give verbal direction, but we usually convey our requests and instructions in writing in our office-based role. We use online chat services, emails and typed documents, but we also annotate engineering drawings and provide a narrative (explanation) on calculations.

Books2All blog: Literacy skills in engineering and why they are needed in the workplace
Literacy skills improve the communication of ideas and information in engineering

Our written commentary, along with the calculations, forms part of the overall project design. It enables anyone checking our work to follow the logic of the calculations and frame any assumptions we make. It may also serve to remind the engineer why they undertook that set of calculations.

Assessing, editing and mentoring

I qualified in civil engineering as a mature student, following a fairly unremarkable earlier career. Fortunately, I had other family members who helped me brush up on my literacy skills. While studying, I soon realised that I enjoyed reading and writing about topics that interest me. Before long, my newfound writing and editing skills became an asset in my workplace, and I now assess tender applications and edit other engineers’ writing as part of my job.

Books2All blog: Literacy skills in engineering and why they are needed in the workplace
Children need to be taught the value of literacy skills in engineering

For several years, I have been a mentor to young engineers and a supervising civil engineer for the ICE, coaching applicants towards Chartership. I would never have attained this level of responsibility if I had not taken the opportunity to revisit my basic literacy skills. For me, it was better late than never, but I still ponder on what else I might have achieved if I’d valued these skills more when I was at school.

We all remember sitting in class, wondering why we had to read books we didn’t enjoy, write essays on topics that didn’t interest us and learn maths theories we could not relate to our lives. I know I am not the first person to regret not paying greater attention to what I was taught at school. I often wish someone could have explained to my younger self, in a way that made sense, how reading, writing and comprehension skills would be invaluable to my career.

Reporting, auditing and presenting

KISS or ‘keep it simple stupid’ originated in the US navy, and it certainly holds true in engineering practice despite the intricacies of what we do. I spend much of my time editing unwieldy reports into something more attention-grabbing. I try and instil in those I coach the need to keep to the point when they write and not present work to others until they have read it through first.

As with many professions, civil engineering is an audited industry. It’s no surprise, really, given the huge safety implications that unnoticed errors can cause. Well written and accurate documentation provides a reliable testimony for those needing to evaluate what has been done. With this in mind, those entering the profession should learn how to present reports to a high standard.

Teaching school pupils how to format documents with tables of contents, appendices, referencing etc., really can pay dividends later on. Like most professional careers, there is always a need for good reporting skills, presentation skills, and a whole host of other communication talents in engineering.

Context is everything

For those whose career paths take us away from the humanities and the creative arts (at least while we are at work), it can be quite a shock to realise that our teachers’ insistence that we write with accuracy and flow had a tangible purpose after all!

I can reassure you, though, that engineers are usually wedded to their engineering books. It’s doubtful we’d progress any infrastructure project without referring back to the collective knowledge in published engineering texts. I acquired my little library of reference materials through the various stages of my career. Some, such as Foundation, Design and Construction by MJ Tomlinson and Basic Soil Mechanics by R Whitlow, get flicked through regularly, while others don’t often see the light of day, but I doubt I’ll ever get rid of them.

Books are always needed, but are we all doing everything we can to ensure children understand the long-term importance of developing their reading and writing while still learning these invaluable skills?

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