Understanding Lifelong Learning and Skills Development: Lessons Learned from Practicing Civil Engineers


Civil engineering is rapidly evolving as research discoveries, technological evolution, and changing regulations alter the state of practice. To adapt to the advancement of the field, engineers must have the ability to be lifelong learners.

While a number of studies have focused on developing lifelong learning skills among undergraduates, far fewer empirical studies have examined such learning in engineering workplaces. Further, additional context-specific research on the skills and knowledge required for success in civil engineering is needed.

This study begins to address these gaps through an exploratory study of current practitioners using 19 semistructured interviews with a purposeful sample of civil engineers in the Pacific Northwest. Subsequent thematic analysis of the interview transcripts revealed four themes of skill and knowledge groups, namely technical, communication, professional, and business skills and knowledge, plus the methods of learning used to develop those skills.

The findings from this study were placed into context within the existing literature. As has been mirrored in studies across several engineering disciplines, this study revealed that communication skills remain critical for professional practice, especially in non-formal modes of communication such as email.

Discipline and region-specific technical skills, such as seismic design and the use of specialized analysis software, were revealed to be important for both entry-level engineers and engineers in management and senior roles.

Other important findings of this study also showcased the need for self-directed learning, learning through mentorship and asking questions, and learning through experience. Finally, several implications of the research findings on civil engineering education were discussed, such as greater emphasis on metacognitive activities that encourage students to reflect on how they learn.

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