A Civil Engineering Career Guide

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This informative article is brought to us by Alex Kolkena, PE. He recently published this article in Medium and we think it would be a good read for young civil engineers. It is Alex’s career story and provides detailed description of his experiences in various paths he took his career.

Introduction

In June of 2010, I graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering. Since that time, I’ve worked in a variety of different engineering career fields, including the military, the private sector, and the public sector. My experience has given me perspective on what advantages each career paths offers. Knowing that there’s a whole host of trade-offs to consider, I wrote this guide to help university students or recent graduates decide which path is right for them.

This guide is a living, breathing document. I will change and add new sections from time to time, and I welcome input from other seasoned, experienced engineers.

The Military

Why yes, the military does have engineers. In fact, each branch of the military has engineer officers. While military engineers are nothing like their civilian counterparts, working for Uncle Sam can be a great career in itself or a handy stepping stone to a career in engineering.

What are the advantages of serving as a military engineer?

  • Depending on availability, the military will pay for your college. ROTC cadets can qualify for scholarships which can pay full tuition and a monthly stipend. Once you’re in the service, you may also qualify to have the military pay for a master’s degree. Also, when you get out, you’ll have the option of using the GI Bill to pay for another degree. The best time to apply for ROTC scholarships is when you’re a high school senior, although it’s possible to apply for one once you’re already in college.
  • As an active duty service member, you have a whole host of benefits: full medical coverage, full dental coverage, life insurance, 30 days of paid leave per year, etc. The pay isn’t bad, but the benefits are unbeatable.
  • So long as you meet the military’s basic retention standards (e.g. you avoid brushes with the law, don’t get too fat, etc.) then you keep your job. Sometimes the military goes through “draw-downs” (downsizing) and officers get involuntary discharges. But even in cases like those, they’ll give you at least seven months to find a new job.
  • Military service looks great on a resume. Both public and private sector employers like to hire veterans because they tend to be more disciplined and responsible. When applying for government jobs, you’ll get a small boost for being a veteran.
  • More than just job skills, you’ll pick up valuable life skills: as a military officer, you learn how lead and motivate others, how to plan, how to pack, how to survive in austere conditions, etc. For me personally, that was my greatest takeaway from my time in the service.
Me, as an Army engineer officer stationed in New Mexico (2014)

What are the drawbacks of serving as a military engineer?

  • You won’t use your degree. At least, you won’t use it much. The Air Force and Navy require an engineering degree to commission as a an engineer officer, but the Army and Marines don’t care what type of degree you earn (this is why I tell engineering students who’re interested in serving in the military to check out the Air Force and Navy first.) Even if you serve in an “engineering” unit, the closest thing you’ll do to engineering is construction management. Civilian contractors do most of the design work for the military’s engineering and construction projects.
  • Many people struggle to adjust to the military lifestyle. Waking up early every day. Moving every few years. Deployments overseas. Working on weekends. Having to wear a uniform every day. It can be too stressful for some, but plenty of people love that lifestyle and miss it when they get out.

Can I get my PE while serving as a military officer?

YES. It takes a bit of a wrangling, but it’s possible. If someone in your chain of command has their PE and will sign off on your time in service, then yes you can earn your PE. I had to get creative when listing my “engineering experience”, but the state accepted it and I passed the test. If you’re serving in the military and want to make the jump to a civilian engineer job, I would highly recommend earning your PE before separating.

One of the many sweet construction projects I got to oversee as a military engineer (2013)

Federal Service

The federal government employs thousands of civil engineers across the country and overseas.

How do I get a government engineer job?

The process is quite simple because everything is on just one website. You log on to www.usajobs.gov and make a resume with their template and upload electronic copies of your transcript, PE license, etc. You’ll then use the USAJOBs website to look up and apply for all the jobs in every federal agency. The approach is straightforward: you’ll have a list of jobs you’ve applied to and the “status” of each respective application. Your likelihood of getting hired will depend not only on the strength of your credentials, but also the competitiveness of the pool of applicants.

What are the advantages of serving as a government engineer?

  • Stability. It’s much tougher to fire a federal employee than one in the private sector. Unlike a private business, a government agency doesn’t have a “bottom line.” Profit is not the motive because their funding comes from the federal government, not customers. You can hang on to your job without “adding value” to the organization. Thus, if you’re diligent and take your job seriously, you don’t have to worry about getting laid off.
  • Mobility. Because profit isn’t the bottom line, your boss normally doesn’t care how long you’ll stay in their office. Your supervisor isn’t paying your salary, the taxpayers are. In fact, it’s common for federal employees to openly apply for other jobs. Sometimes in order to get promotion, you’ll often have to apply for jobs in different locations. If you move to different offices within the same agency, the learning curve is usually not that steep.
  • Salary. This one is a two-edged sword: all salaries are determined by your time in service and grade. There are no salary negotiations, you just take what they give you. That can be frustrating if you’re an exceptionally talented engineer and you’re getting paid less than some random dude simply because he’s been in the service longer. But, at the same time, it’s protection against possible wage discrimination.
Me as public sector engineer: working for the National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (2017)

What are the drawbacks of serving as a government engineer?

  • The hiring process moves at the speed of molasses. You may get a job offer (or rejection) 3–4 months after the interview takes place. Your hiring official will have to cut through a mountain of red tape to hire you: background checks, authorizations, etc.
  • You don’t use your degree that much. Most of the number-crunching/design work is done by private firms contracted by the government. While you do have to understand the principles of engineering and construction, you’re primarily a reviewer and organizer. Of course, the day-to-day work will vary depending on the agency and assignment.
  • Paperwork. Lots of paperwork and red ink when you’re dealing with government bureaucracy and excessive regulations. You’ll also constantly hold meetings with folks within your organization as well as contractors and local stakeholders.

The Private Sector

Most of my undergraduate classmates ended up working for private consulting firms. Private sector firms include everything from multinational, multi-billion dollar construction giants like Bechtel or Parsons to small consulting firms with fewer than ten engineers.

How do I find a job in private sector engineering?

There are a few strategies:

  • Apply online. Most engineers look for jobs on websites such as Indeed, LinkedIn, Monster, etc. While these are all handy websites, one method you should consider is just Googling all the civil engineering firms in a given city and accessing the “careers” section on the company website. Most companies have a link to an application or you can just email the hiring manager directly. By following this process, it’s much more likely that a hiring manager will see your application.
  • Career fairs. Chances are your university holds career fairs once per semester. Print out some copies of your resume and talk to recruiters face-to-face. Be sure to dress appropriately and have at least two other people inspect your resume for typos.
  • Networking. Get in touch with former classmates who are already in the industry and see if their employers are looking to take in more talent. A recommendation from someone who knows you personally will carry plenty of weight in the hiring process.
  • Recruiters. If you get on LinkedIn and connect with some civil engineering recruiters, they can help facilitate the process when it comes to finding a job.
Me as a private sector engineer in the Phoenix area. I just got back from the dentist, hence the face (2018)

What are the advantages of working as a private sector engineer?

  • Professional development. As a private sector engineer working in a consulting firm, you will learn all the ins and outs of engineering. That includes calculations, design standards, modeling, etc. You’ll develop a solid skill set that builds on what you learned in college. You’ll also learn how to use programs such as Revit, RISA 3D, Civil 3D etc. In a short period of time, you can watch your knowledge of engineering grow by leaps and bounds.
  • Work environment. When I worked as a structural engineer in the private sector, about 90% of my workday was spent in my workspace fiddling with design programs. If you don’t like sitting through meetings and listening to office drama, a private company usually has less of that.
  • Salary. If you’re good at what you do and add value to the company, then you have the leverage those skills to demand a higher salary. Once you’re a licensed PE with a solid rap sheet, you may have multiple companies engage in a bidding war over you.
  • Meritocracy. The private sector, profit is the bottom line. If employers want to see their companies succeed, they must promote and reward their most competent engineers, lest those engineers jump ship to take better offers at a competitor. If you’ve got the skills to pay the bills, that’ll ensure that you rise to the top, one way or another.
  • Fluidity. You can begin working for a private sector employee right after they extend their job offer. Less bureaucracy and red tape to slash through.

What are the drawbacks of working as a private sector engineer?

  • Insecurity. This is a big one: as a private sector engineer, you can be fired at any time for any reason. Oftentimes, they’ll fire you simply because they don’t have a backlog of projects and no longer need you. Businesses do not have to give you any kind of warning before laying you off. In fact, you’ll most likely get pushed out the door immediately after they hand you your pink slip and severance check.
  • Inflexibility. If you jump from company to company, it looks bad on your resume. Employers want to minimize turnover, so they’ll be reluctant to hire you if they think you won’t stick with them for at least five years. As such, it’s important to select an employer with office locations where you want to live and work long term. Smaller companies will only have one office, and if you decide you want to live somewhere else, you’ll have to find a new employer when you move.
  • Work hours. Unlike their public sector counterparts, private sector engineers may sometimes be required to work overtime. With deadlines and profit hanging in the balance, things can become stressful as the boss puts pressure on his worker bees to get the job done.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much do my grades matter?

It depends on where you want to go and what you want to do. Most private sector companies will have a minimum acceptable GPA for a brand new graduate (usually around 3.0.) However, if you know the right people, you can avoid that roadblock (think back to what I said about networking.) Also, if you plan on attending graduate school, it’s important to stay above that 3.0 threshold (and higher than that if you want to attend a prestigious one.) Once you’re in the industry with a year or so of experience, no one will ever ask you about your grades. You won’t even put it on your resume. In summary, you should always strive for excellence and a high GPA will open many doors for you. However, if you make the right moves and know the right people, less-than-stellar grades won’t undermine your career.

How important is it for me to graduate from a prestigious engineering program?

Again, it depends on what you want to do. Attending a top-tier engineering program has some benefits:

  • A strong professional network. Once again, perhaps the most important takeaway of a college education (besides learning the material itself) is networking: you should befriend and build rapport with as many of your classmates as possible. Most professionals get their jobs through referrals. You’ve heard the old refrain “it’s not the grades you make, but the hands you shake”, and that’s certainly true. If you’re in a top tier program, your classmates will include the best and brightest of the nation. You’ll graduate with invaluable connections to super-charged professionals in the nation’s top engineering firms, which always comes in handy when you’re looking for a job or a promotion.
  • Recruitment. The biggest engineering firms will focus their efforts on recruiting students from big-name schools. They figure it’s less risky to hire someone from top university, since they’ll learn the ins and outs of the job quicker. You’ll see them descend on your college at career fairs and you should jump on those opportunities to get some internship experience.
  • Learning. Do you get a better education at a higher-ranked engineering school? Overall, I would say yes. However, I would also say that you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Even at an unranked engineering program, the curriculum is more or less the same, but if you invest the time in studying, you can graduate with just as good an understanding of engineering concepts.

Despite these advantages, I should say this: I know plenty of highly talented, highly successful (i.e. making six figures) civil engineers who graduated from unranked state schools. In the federal service and in the military, your alma mater is especially irrelevant. It becomes less and less relevant the longer you stay in the industry.

How important is it for me to become a Professional Engineer?

Next to earning your actual degree, a PE license is the most important step in your engineering career. Your PE gives you the legal authority to sign off on engineer drawings, which is absolutely essential for a successful consulting firm. It’s also a necessary credential to climb the ranks as a government engineer.

You should take and pass the PE Exam as early as possible. Some states allow you to sit for it before you meet the four-year experience requirement. Even if you don’t live in one of those states, you can travel out of state to take the exam. Your best bet is to call the state board directly and find out their requirements.

What’re the advantages and disadvantages to working at a smaller firm as opposed to a major corporation?

At university career fairs, you’ll see recruiters from several major corporations: Kiewit, AECOM, Burns & McDonnell, etc. However, you might also see a few companies with fewer than a dozen total employees on their staff. My first private sector job was with one such company. Although most engineer graduates aim to join a major corporation, a smaller, locally-owned firm does offer some advantages:

  • Visibility and team cohesion. Even as a recent hire, I was aware of all the business deals the company was getting into. I was on a first-name basis with everyone in the office, including the president.
  • Joining a company in its infancy means you’ll gain seniority as the company grows. The recent graduate engineers who stayed with the company are now team leads.
  • Chill work environment. The boss didn’t care what we wore to work as long as we got our work done.

Of course, working for a small company did have its downsides.

  • Lousy pay. Due to economies of scale, my starting salary wasn’t too hot. They couldn’t afford to pay a trainee decent pay while training him on all their design programs.
  • Lack of mobility. Major corporations will have offices in several cities and even several countries. At my small firm, the office was just in Kansas City. Want to move somewhere else? Too bad.
  • Lack of vitality. In an economic downturn, small businesses are at a much higher risk to go under.

How important is it to have a master’s degree? Or a PhD?

Do you need a master’s degree to succeed as a civil engineer? No. Does it help? Yes. Here are the benefits to graduating with a master’s degree:

  • States will count a master’s degree as one year of professional experience towards your PE licensing.
  • An undergraduate engineering program will only cover the basics of the main types of engineering: construction, water resources, structures, geotechnical, transportation, and environmental. Most engineering jobs (and virtually all those in the private sector) will be for one of those aforementioned specializations. A master’s degree will have a specific area of focus and you’ll have the opportunity to deepen your understanding of your specialty.
  • A master’s degree can set you apart from your peers when applying for jobs. Many announcements will say “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.” The more you know about your specialty when you first join the company, the less they have to invest in training you! In fact, some top firms will only consider applicants with a master’s degrees. As for a doctorate, I think the only time you would need a PhD in engineering is when you want to stay in academia and become a professor or work as a research scientist in a national laboratory. A PhD may also be useful if you’re going into some high-end consulting work on a very narrow subject matter (e.g. the effects of corrosive salt water in bay bridges.) Other than that, a doctorate wouldn’t help your career progression.

Would any other graduate degree help me in my career, apart from a master’s degree in engineering?

Maybe. You’ll see some engineers with degrees in Engineering Management or an MBA. If you have to choose between one of these degrees and a master’s degree in engineering, I would definitely stick with engineering. A management-focused degree may help you later down the line, but I’ve never seen an employer stipulate one in a job announcement.

If I serve in the military, but decide to get out, how do I make the transition to a civilian career?

I’ve written a separate article to answer this question.

What advice do you have for preparing for a job interview?

I have a separate article for this one too!

Should I ask someone to review my resume before I start sending it out?

Absolutely! If you don’t know any seasoned engineers already in the industry, you can log on to Reddit and post an (anonymized) version of your resume on there for the wise owls to pick apart.

How much should I expect to make as a brand new graduate?

An engineer’s salary varies greatly. It will depend on a myriad of factors, including the size of the company, the type of work, the local economy, geographic location, etc. Some things to consider when you’re evaluating a job offer:

  • Cost of living. A high cost area can mean that all but the super-rich are priced out of owning a home. It can also mean higher prices for ordinary goods and services. When I lived in the Bay Area, I was raking in a sweet $115k salary, but I was also paying $1k per month for rent in a cramped, ramshackle apartment that I shared with two other dudes. When I would tell co-workers about my place, they were blown away that I was paying so little. That same year, I took another job in Arizona that paid $72k. After the move, I was much better off financially, saving more at the end of each month. I also bought a condo and built up equity…as opposed to throwing away thousands on rent. Local taxes are also worth considering.
  • Commute. The length and fluidity of your commute can make or break your day. If you’re moving to a city, it would behoove you to ensure that your city has affordable housing within twenty minutes of your office or a reliable public transportation system. Few things make a day more stressful than stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours to and from a workplace. Not only will it make you miserable, it’ll also eat up time that could be spent having fun or doing something productive.
  • Other externalities. Can your spouse/significant other get a job in the area? What other benefits besides salary does the company offer? All of these factors can be more important than gross income.

What courses in the engineering program are the most important?

It varies quite a bit. Something many undergraduates don’t know is that private firms don’t hire general-purpose civil engineers: they hire structural engineers, geotechnical engineers, hydraulic engineers, etc. You must select a specialty and search for jobs within that field.

In my case, I chose structures as my concentration. If you want to be a structural engineer, you should take the following courses:

  • Structural steel design
  • Reinforced concrete design
  • Timber design

Those three will all be on the PE Exam. I would also recommend these courses, although you may have to stick around for graduate school to take them:

  • Masonry design
  • Prestressed concrete
  • Plates and shells
  • Seismic design
  • Finite Element Method

Seismic design is especially important if you plan on working in in California or anywhere on the West Coast. In fact, California PEs must take additional surveying and seismic exams to get their license. Finite Element Method is important to understand because it forms the basis of the design problems you’ll use to determine if certain structural elements are suitable under given loads. As a student, you’ll perform pages and pages of hand calculations, but as a working professional, it’s almost all done on spreadsheets or FEA programs.

If I’m going to mostly be using design programs to do all the number crunching, why don’t they just teach us how to use them in university?

It’s because the purpose of a degree in civil engineering is to give you a foundation in the principles of engineering. It’s why advise all engineering undergraduates to pay close attention to the basics and understand all the variables that go into design equations. If you have a firm understanding of the theory, then you’ll quickly learn how to use spreadsheets and design programs efficiently. They’re tools, not crutches. If you’re just entering in values and aren’t sure what it all means, it’ll take you too long to produce a quality finished product…which brings me to another point: remember, you’re paid by the hour. Productivity is the name of the game. If you can produce a quality finished product in a minimal amount of time without outside help, then you’re making your boss money…and giving him a strong incentive to pay you more, lest you take your skills someplace else.

What can I do now as a student to better prepare for a future in engineering?

Many things. Your time as a university student is the ideal time to sow the seeds of future success:

  • As I’ve said before, go the extra mile to master the material. That means you should take the time to understand all the concepts behind the problems you’re solving, not just the bare minimum to get the right answer. Don’t cut corners by simply memorizing processes and equations. If you learn just enough to pass the exams, but it’ll come back to bite you because you won’t have a firm foundation in the theories behind engineering. You pay good money to learn in college! Don’t let it go to waste!
  • Save all your notes. I’ve found one of the most effective forms of studying is creating your own study guide, complete with flowcharts, vocabulary words, equations, etc. You should scan and save all your study guides, notes, graded assignments, etc. You can use them later. Also, save your textbooks, at least the ones that are relevant to your specialty.
  • Get involved. Join the university’s ASCE student chapter. Help with the steel bridge or concrete canoe competitions. Attend conferences. Get to know all your classmates as well as those at other universities. Hiring managers are like university admissions officers: rather than simply looking at grades, they want someone “well-rounded” with strong extracurricular credentials. Also, add all your classmates on Facebook and LinkedIn so you can keep in touch in the years to come.
  • Don’t assume. Ask. Talk to the professionals who are already in the industry and pick their brain. They’ll know what to look for and what you should focus on in the interests of career advancement. Reddit, for example, is a great resource where you can connect with other engineers and get sage wisdom. You can even email me directly if you have a question: kolkena@byu.net.

Jessica

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