Engineering a better world: Using your degree in the nonprofit sector

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Engineering has an immense impact on the way we live our lives. Almost everything around us – from our water systems, to our Facebook accounts, to the highway we take to get to work – owes a part of its existence to an engineer.

It is often said that while scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that has never been. They have a unique perspective on life, seeing things as they could be and constantly seeking out potential for growth and improvement.

This alone makes engineers extremely valuable to the nonprofit sector.

But there are many other reasons a background in engineering or computer science might be a good option for those looking to work in this field.

“Choosing an engineering degree as a step towards getting into the nonprofit world is an excellent idea because there are so many different strengths students can offer the sector after graduation,” says Jenny Reilly, director of the faculty of applied science at the University of British Columbia.

Is the nonprofit sector somewhere you might want to end up?

If so, the opportunities are certainly there. Engineers, software programmers, and other technological professionals passionate about working in the sector will find a wide range of jobs and opportunities in nonprofits. Whether you study computer science or electrical, mechanical, civil, or chemical engineering, there are many ways to put your skills to work in a meaningful and rewarding way.

“Engineering students gain technical skills and perspectives that can be applied in a wide variety of industries,” says Russell Wong, manager of marketing and communications in the engineering office at the University of Waterloo. “If they discover a passion for a certain cause or a certain nonprofit early on in their studies, they could easily end up putting their engineering skills to full-time use in the nonprofit world.”

But what kind of work could you actually end up doing?

To give you a few examples, a mechanical or electrical engineer could work for a nonprofit building power sources to bring energy to remote communities, or in a lab researching new ways to develop biomechanical devices or prosthetics. Those with a computer science or software background might find themselves helping charitable organizations develop their websites or smart phone apps. Civil engineers could end up working with locals in underdeveloped villages to come up with ways to fix problems with existing water supply and sanitation systems.

Sal Alajek is the global engineering team lead at Engineers Without Borders. He works with engineering faculties in universities all across Canada to reform and redesign curriculums to incorporate more global elements.

Today more than ever, he explains, as the sector continues to grow, recent graduates can really follow a career progression in the nonprofit world.

“It’s no longer just a placement for a few years and then it stops,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for an engineer to really see where they can grow personally, where they can grow professionally, and where they can create an impact in a certain area that they’re passionate about. And there’s something to be said about following your passion.”

Are the skills you develop in engineering really transferable to the nonprofit sector, though?

According to Reilly, students in this field acquire a wide range of competencies that can be carried over into nonprofits, and these extend far beyond a strong technical knowledge base.

Undergraduate engineering programs help students develop many other abilities, like problem analysis, investigation skills, design, teamwork, communication skills and professionalism. Those studying in these programs are likely to become more competent in the field of economics and project management, and develop life-long learning abilities that will help them stay up to speed in regards to the advancement of knowledge. Engineering students are also likely to develop a strong understanding of ethics and equity, and how engineering impacts society and the environment.

Wong, who has been heavily involved in the nonprofit sector as a volunteer, says a big part of what engineers have to offer nonprofits stems from how they are taught to see the world.

“We can apply engineering processes to the way we look at the world as technical communicators, technical experts, and business professionals,” he says. “And I think we absolutely need engineers to do that for nonprofit organizations.”

According to Alajek, core to all engineering is a problem solving approach that, if harnessed properly, could benefit any organization. He refers to it as a “systems lens,” and says every nonprofit would benefit from having someone bring that perspective to their organization.

“If you combine that approach with a passion, you can be a pretty unique asset on any team,” he says. “I think seemingly it would look like you have to have a clear connection between your specific discipline and the nonprofit sector you’re going into, but if you sell your problem solving approach well, that shouldn’t be a barrier.”

What about computer science degrees?

Robert Tang-wai is the manager of assessments and technology at reBOOT Canada, an organization that provides computer hardware, training and technical support to charities, nonprofits and people with limited access to technology.

He says the only barrier his background in computer science created is that it did not sufficiently prepare him to deal with the people behind the infrastructure. He developed a lot of knowledge and skills in many areas of computer science, like security, networking, client-server applications and automation, but not enough in how to deal with clients and client issues.

“I knew all about the machine, little about the user,” he says, adding that any degree holder – engineering, computer science, or otherwise – should take extra training in management and business. “You can rise quickly in charitable organizations and you can find yourself dealing more with running a department – or even the entire organization – than with the technical aspects.”

In fact, as the acceleration of technology continues to dramatically change the way organizations must operate, technology professionals are increasingly valued in nonprofit management. People with this technical background tend to have a good grasp on what other employees need in order to do their jobs, and can steer organizations through this shift towards instant communication and increased organizational transparency.

They are also usually effective as subject-matter experts for editing journals, writing grants, or developing meaningful ties with government agencies or corporate partners, all of which make them strong players in nonprofit organizations.

Still wondering if nonprofit work is right for you?

Engineering and computer science students thinking of one day working in the world of nonprofits might want to look into co-op programs. These can provide you with up to 20 months of hands on work experience throughout your academic program.

This way, you can get a feel for what it’s like to work in different fields, and figure out where you want your degree to take you.

Reilly, who also works as director of the engineering co-op program at the University of British Columbia, says the main benefit of these programs is that students get to try out a wide variety of organizations. Even if a student is concentrating in nonprofits, they get multiple opportunities to work in different types of organizations and different areas within the sector.

“I think it’s absolutely essential for students to get hands-on experience,” she says. “Instead of graduating without that knowledge, and going into a particular stream and figuring out that it’s not exactly where they wanted to go, they could get up to five different work experiences in their undergraduate degree.”

For those students who are unable to join a co-op program, try to reach out and get as many other hands-on opportunities as possible. Take on internships, volunteer, work part-time in your field, and engage with people who can offer you advice and other related experiences.

And finally, if you really want to bring your engineering or computer science background into the world of nonprofits, rest assured that there is plenty of room for you and your passion.

Interested in learning more about how to apply your engineering degree to the nonprofit sector? Check out our interview with engineer Patrick Miller, where he discusses his work with Engineers Without Borders.

Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a series that suggests how you can apply your undergraduate degree in the pursuit of a career in the nonprofit sector. Previously, we explored how to put a liberal arts, marketing/communicationsbusiness or even a pure sciences degree to work in the nonprofit sector.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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