The engineer's learning curve.
This two-part series focuses on the trajectory of a design engineer's education over the course of a career. The first half looks at the "learning curve" concept as well as techniques for self-education and professional growth. Next month's article looks more specifically at references for design procedures, equipment and application libraries, and other recommended sources of information.

Do you know where you are on your professional learning curve as an hvac engineer? Did you plot your learning curve at the beginning of your career so that you could track your progress through the years? Or, as a new engineer in the hvac profession, do you have a plan on how to learn everything there is to know to be a fully productive, professional engineer in the hvac industry?

This two-part article is intended to help hvac engineers at any point on their learning curve take a good look at where they are now, where they have been and where they want to go as they advance along their hvac engineering learning curves. Whose responsibility is it to provide the resources, encouragement, motivation and opportunity to take part in continuing education opportunities? The concepts discussed here can be applied to engineers in both the consulting engineering and design-build contractor segments of the hvac industry.

Part 1 starts with a perspective from the very beginning of one's career with less than a year in the hvac industry looking up the curve into the future. The other perspective, discussed in more detail in Part 2 next month, is from a point midway along the learning curve with one eye seeing the 20/20 hindsight perspective after 20-plus years in the industry and the other eye still on the continuous learning curve into the future. Part 2 will also take a "big picture" look at the learning curve and provide checklists for a personal professional library, technical and soft skills and abilities, and a listing of some sources of continuing education opportunities.

Graphical Analogy

As shown in Figure 1, there are a variety of paths an hvac engineer can take from the first day on his first job to the day of retirement. Everyone is unique in how they advance along their learning curve and the same curve doesn't fit every hvac engineer's career. Some professions, such as the medical profession and the various construction trade unions, have very structured training programs to guide their new recruits from apprenticeship to full professional status.

The learning curve for an hvac engineer, however, from the time of graduation from engineering school to the status of EIT (engineer-in-training) to becoming a licensed P.E. (professional engineer) is not as highly regulated. Some states require their P.E.s to maintain a certain level of continuing education in order to maintain a P.E. license to "practice" engineering in that state; however, this is not a requirement in all states.

Furthermore, there is no structured program outlining the minimum skills and abilities that an hvac engineer needs in order to practice engineering. For the purposes of this article, one might even consider that the use of the term engineering "practice" implies a "learning on the job" approach to the profession and that this learning is a continuing process throughout a career.

As a point of comparison and clarification, the learning curve is a term used in many professions as a way to express how fast a new person in the industry advances to the point of becoming a fully productive "professional" in that industry.

In manufacturing businesses there are software analysis programs and consultants who develop actual curves of production methods based on time studies of the labor being done and the work produced. There are computations for statistical industry averages with actual curves plotted for comparison purposes in some manufacturing industries. These curves are mainly used for repetitive-type production processes.

All of this is not applicable to the hvac engineer who deals with unique building designs (not products). The point is emphasized that buildings are not products because there is a faction in the legal industry wanting to classify buildings as products so that the product liability laws will apply - keep an eye out for these vultures; this is worthy of a separate article at another time. This is an attempt by a few in the legal profession to exploit an opportunity to craftily redefine another profession's business and get into the deep pockets of the insurance companies at the same time.

The point is also made to emphasize that part of the hvac engineer's learning curve should consist of some lessons on risk awareness and professional liability based on the responsibility outlined in most state statutes that deal with professional engineering.

Learning Curve Arithmetic

The engineer's learning curve can be explained with a mathematical analogy without getting into deep statistical curve fitting techniques. Every line or curve has an equation to describe its shape. Depending on the variables that are associated with the equation, the line or curve will take on a simple or more complex shape. A line has a fairly simple equation of Ax + By + C = 0 (See Series 1 and 2 on Figure 1).

Depending on the values of the A, B and C constants, the slope and intercept of the line will change. A curve, on the other hand, can take on a more complex equation called a function in calculus terminology. This is generally represented as f(x,y) where f stands for function, y stands for the independent variable, and x stands for the dependent variable. The x variable is called the domain of the function and the y variable is called the range of the function. The function can take on different degrees of complexity and have names like constant, polynomial, quadratic, cubic, algebraic, transcendental, composite, etc. There is a concept called the uniqueness theorem in calculus that states that a function cannot approach two different limits at the same time. There is also a concept called the continuous continuity theorem that states that functions can have limits in both the domain and range. These limits are the asymptotes.

It is not too much different when one considers the learning curve that an hvac engineer undergoes in a career. In some cases where the engineer does not have good direction from a mentor and does not take charge of their career objectives early, there may be a rough erratic learning curve (like the curve shown in Series 3 in Figure 1). The shape of the learning curve can be smoothed out to a line if the variables are minimized from the start of one's career. In other words, with a plan of action and the right tools (resources) a young engineer can increase the slope of her learning curve.


Naturally there are limits to a learning curve. We might say the asymptote for the domain of the learning curve is retirement and the asymptote for the range of the learning curve is knowing 100% of everything there is to know in the hvac industry.

An employer may like to hire a new engineer who has a steep learning curve in order to be productive as soon as possible. This would allow the company to be as profitable as possible with the least investment of company resources. This learning curve might look something like the Series 4 in Figure 1.

This is not likely to happen with a new graduate engineer; however, a company could hire an experienced engineer away from another company that has already been trained by the invested resources of the other company. In this way, the new company would be getting an employee who could "hit the ground running." The salary of this experienced engineer would likely be considerably higher than a recent graduate engineer; however, the company would benefit quicker by not having to wait for the individual to advance along the learning curve. The possible downside of this strategy is that the experienced engineer may not be willing to adapt to the company's way of doing things. The upside is that the experienced engineer may bring new, innovative ideas into the company.

The slope at the beginning of the learning curve will vary from person to person. One of the first variables in the learning curve depends on the type of engineering degree that one has in hand at graduation, a mechanical engineering (ME) degree or a dual architectural/engineering (AE) degree. Graduates of AE programs may have had additional coursework on building design than their peers who were in a straight ME program.

Other variables that may impact the initial slope of the learning curve are past co-op or summer work experiences in the hvac industry or whether or not the person has obtained their EIT (engineer-in-training certification). This article will not concern itself with when the initial starting point of one's learning curve is since each hvac engineer will need to address the basic topics outlined herein at some point in time. Therefore, it can be assumed that if someone starts his career with a greater degree of knowledge than his peers on a particular subject, then he actually started his learning curve before his first job, (e.g., the y intercept will be at a higher value on the learning curve).

First Impressions

As engineers first enter the hvac consulting industry, many thoughts run through their minds regarding their future and how their career learning curve will take shape. A lot of this will be determined by the continuing education philosophy of their company, their immediate supervisor, and the amount of resources committed to this philosophy. The individual's personal commitment to proactively commit time and personal resources (time and financial commitment) will also play a large part in the shape of her learning curve. This is in many ways a self-directed learning curve, even with support from the company and supervisor.

A common feeling among entry-level engineers is an overwhelming sense of confusion. Many engineers expect to enjoy work more than school, since they can then concentrate on their particular interests. However, many of them are also unsure about the role they will play at the company they choose to work for, unless they worked for it previously as an intern or co-op student. It is not always clear how much one is expected to know or how much and how fast one will be expected to learn when entering the field. As most engineers are confident, logical thinkers, they realize that there will be several obstacles to overcome in their careers, especially at the beginning. However, the manner in which to overcome these obstacles is not so obvious.

After a few months, it is likely that one will realize that there is still a significant amount of information to be absorbed over a long amount of time before she will feel comfortable and confident that her design is the best solution for a given project. During these early stages, the typical entry-level engineer is probably accumulating information from a variety of literary sources, such as the ASHRAE Handbooks, equipment catalogs, code books, and supplemental literature that other design or sales engineers may provide.

In addition to these written sources is the knowledge and expertise of more experienced engineers. Entry-level engineers are often assigned a mentor for a given period of time to help them along with their projects and answer their questions, however, this is not always the case. Engineers new to the field begin to realize that they will ultimately teach themselves a great deal of what they learn, filling in the holes with advice from senior engineers.

The Struggle for Self-Learning

Finding time and motivation for self-learning may be one considerable obstacle that the young, inexperienced engineer faces, particularly since it can be difficult to find information that is presented in a manner that provokes interest and does not require the reader to have a solid background on the given subject. The vast amount of information available does not help to improve the engineer's motivation. Where does one begin the learning process when there are several hundred pages of text to be read on a subject? Reading through literature to learn about a particular concept can often take a considerable amount of time, especially when one is starting with little or no knowledge on the subject.

Most people lead very busy lives and find it difficult to set aside a significant amount of time for self-learning. Therefore, some may not learn as much as they could as fast as they could, which benefits neither the engineer, nor his boss. This is a concern for entry-level engineers since it will greatly influence their productivity, career paths, and level of success.

A simplified, organized source introducing hvac concepts to entry-level engineers would provide the basis for a more efficient and productive learning process, particularly if it included several examples, schematics, and definitions. This may encourage new engineers to get an early start on their self-learning process, providing them with the basic knowledge to better understand the concepts discussed with engineers and provoking questions to obtain deeper insight on a subject.

In order to reach the optimal benefit from a source of this kind, as well as any other source of information, the concepts presented must be applied to projects. This allows engineers to grasp a complete understanding of what they are learning about and most likely retain the information easier. Reading up on topics that the engineer does not utilize right away is good to gain exposure to different systems and concepts. However, this information will most likely be more easily forgotten and should be filed away for reference when a project requiring the application presents itself.

In order to complement the hours spent reading through literature, young engineers need to tap into other facets of learning. Approaching senior engineers with questions will divulge a wealth of information. This information will be much more useful, particularly in the future, if it is accompanied by a diagram and recorded in a personal set of notes. If nothing is written about a topic discussed with a senior engineer, there is nothing to refer to if it is later forgotten or needs to be clarified. Then the engineer has to take the time to either try to figure it out on her own with reference sources, or ask the question again.

Discussing topics with other entry-level engineers can also be beneficial because everyone is learning different things at different times, and they can share information with each other as they progress. This opens up the opportunity to debate why some approaches to a problem are better than others and reveals several perspectives on how to view the same problem, widening the scope of the engineer's thought process. In addition to self-learning through literature and questioning fellow engineers, a key understanding of the systems being designed can be gained in the field, as well as through displays and demonstrations of equipment. A combination of a variety of approaches to understanding engineering concepts can create a well-rounded learning experience.


Engineers need to become knowledgeable in their field to fulfill their goals of obtaining their P.E. licenses, becoming project engineers, and moving up the corporate ladder. Self-learning is key to accelerating one's progress, particularly if one plans to be a multi-disciplined engineer or become involved in other aspects of the engineering field.

Knowledge absorbed early in an engineer's career will make him valuable to employers and can contribute to any continuing education goals they may have. Even if one decides to leave the profession behind, the skills learned early on can be beneficial in the following stages of a career, particularly if someone decides to continue to interact with engineering firms, only from a different perspective. The young engineer's drive to learn will open doors, creating opportunities to achieve great levels of success and satisfaction in these accomplishments as his/her career unfolds. ES