3 misconceptions about engineering careers in global development

A team works on an Engineers Without Borders construction project. What are common misconceptions about engineering careers in global development? Photo by: Student Design and Experiential Learning Center / CC BY-ND

Engineering, like any profession, suffers stereotypes. Engineers are often thought to be male, for example, when in reality, many women do engineering work. Khanjan Mehta, assistant professor of engineering design at Pennsylvania State University, shared that in fact about half of those enrolled in the university’s humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship program, which he leads, are females.

When it comes to working in global development, here are several common misconceptions — and corrections — about engineers.

Myth 1: You must know multiple foreign languages to successfully compete for engineering jobs.

Foreign language proficiency gives any candidate an edge when competing for jobs in global development. And the more languages you know, the better. That’s the common belief, anyway.

For engineers, there’s no need to speak several foreign languages. They may not even need to know the local dialect, depending on the location.

“Everybody always talks about language skills. I think it's a little a bit overrated. I don't think you need to speak 10 languages,” said Aaron Imperiale, a senior project manager who handles proposal recruitment at SUEZ Consulting, a development consulting firm that does work in the water sector.

Based on his experience, the engineering world is divided into three major groups: the English-, French- and Spanish-speaking factions. So if you know those three languages, then you have access to all three markets.

In Chad, for instance, engineers need to speak French. But those working in Gambia only need to speak English; they don’t have to speak Wolof, according to Imperiale.

“What's a necessity is you have to have good engineering skills, you have to know what you're talking about from a technical perspective,” he added. “If you're a bridge engineer, you better know how to make bridges, you better make sure that your calculations are right, whether or not you speak English or Russian.”

Myth 2: All engineers work in the field.

Engineering jobs in global development: What you need to know

Engineering roles in global dev can range from overseeing a bridge construction project in a post-conflict country, to expanding telecommunications in a rural area to designing an innovative solution to a water and sanitation challenge. Read on to see who hires engineering, trends impacting career opportunities, and advice from industry veterans.

It’s common to find engineers engaged in field projects, but that’s not all what they do. Many engineers actually have desk jobs.

“Engineers are seen as the boots on the ground that are turning the screws, when in fact a lot of engineers are doing mostly desktop work. I think that’s what most engineers are doing: planning and designing, feeding data in, testing models. …,” said John Lyon, CEO of World Hope International, a nonprofit that contracts engineers for water, sanitation and hygiene and other projects.

Some are involved in business development, which is what Imperiale advises junior engineers consider doing in order to familiarize themselves with the industry and launch their careers in global development.

Some engineers even perform policy-related work. They analyze different types of engineering projects to determine whether they are good or bad for the environment, or prepare the terms of reference, making sure that project outcomes are achieved on schedule.

In his book, “Solving Problems that Matter (And Getting Paid for It),” Mehta profiles global development professionals with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics background and found that many engineers have taken up technical and management positions at headquarters of international organizations.

“While there might be people who are out in rural areas, you need just as many people to be on the back end of operations,” noted Mehta. “So you can be in the front end, work with people and see the human impact more directly or you can be on the back end and design systems that let people in the front end be more successful.”

Myth 3: Good grades from a reputable school are enough to land you a job.

Some early career engineers come in with an attitude that they deserve to get hired just because they did well in their undergraduate programs at a top-notch school. While it’s true that abundant opportunities are open to engineers because of their technical and problem-solving skills, an undergraduate degree is often not enough. Candidates need to also have significant field and technical experience.

They also need to be realistic and have a sense of humility.

Engineers expecting to have stable jobs in global development right from the start of their career may be in for a disappointment, as the industry has become a large freelancing market where many job opportunities are short term. And as freelancers, experts have to constantly network their way to find new jobs and assignments.

Read more: Engineers in global development: How much do they make?

“Attitude goes a long way,” Imperiale told Devex. “If you come into this business somehow thinking that you deserve something, it's not going to work. You have to be a little bit humble. You've got to take it on the chin. You've got to build your way up, you've got to make your mark, you've got to make your impression.”

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This article was last updated on 15 January 2020

About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.