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By Duane Craig
February 20, 2017
If you don’t manage your career as a construction project engineer, someone else will. That’s because your skills fit into many roles, leaving you vulnerable to revolving job assignments that have little regard for the career direction you prefer. Managing your career means first managing your skills.
The best way to do this is to have a clear understanding of the work you want to do in the coming years. Our previous article on project engineers covered the typical career progression, as well as some not so typical paths. If you look ten years into the future, and realize you don't want to be a construction project manager, then you should start planning right away for the role you would prefer.
Even if the typical path is right for you, it still pays to take charge of your career rather than leaving it up to the will of others. If you are at mid-career level or later, it's not too late to change where your career takes you next, since many of the project engineer skills apply to related jobs. So, regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to look ahead and decide where you want to be in the coming years.
Once you know where you’re going, your first step should be assessing your skills to see how they match up with the skills required for the following step in your career. Suppose you want to follow the typical career path of a project engineer and eventually become a construction project manager. The important skills as a project engineer––scheduling, contract management, estimating, etc.––are also a requirement for PMs. However, you will need to acquire additional skills in things like contract negotiation, Microsoft Project, budget management,and contractor management. The skills you need as a construction project manager help you manage from a higher level, with less emphasis on the details.
You will face a similar trend in technological abilities. Skills related to Microsoft Windows are still needed as a project manager, but you must also know the particular project management software used by your company. You will also find that having Autodesk AutoCAD skills will deliver about a 1% bump to your salary as a project engineer; its effect at the project manager level won't be as important.
Once you know the ultimate role you want to fulfill in the future, and you have plans in place to improve or add the skills you will need for that position, it's time to assess your current situation. Sometimes, you can get started moving more aggressively to your next career objective by looking at the options that are already available with your current employer. That's what Chris Bailey did when he was looking for more responsibility as a project engineer. Only in his case, his move involved far more than just changing jobs with his current employer.
Bailey was working with the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Savannah, Georgia District, when he saw a job opening for a project engineer in Romania. The Corps was putting together a team to oversee a $134 million land-based ballistic missile defense complex in Deveselu. Chris applied for the job and was accepted. In his case, it wasn't only his work experience that had prepared him for the new position, but his positive attitude and eagerness to learn. But that wasn't the first time Bailey had made a career move in the Corps. Over a period of five years, he had changed jobs three other times so he could learn and grow professionally
While Bailey was fortunate he had an employer that could offer him a wide range of career options, that's not the case for many project engineers working for small construction companies. In those positions they are often either in dead end roles, or constantly shifted among jobs to fill in as needed. In both cases, it becomes very difficult to manage your career because you either don't have the opportunities, or you're too busy making a living.
For project engineers that find themselves in either of these situations, the answer could lie in changing employers. But, rather than jumping from the frying pan into the fire, pick the companies you'd like to work for based on the opportunities they offer for advancement.
By working either with an employment recruiter, or doing the research yourself, you can sort through companies not only based on the potential for advancement, but on the types of advancement options that would best fit your career goals. Once you have some candidates identified, you will need to assess your skills and experience so you can improve them as needed to match the requirements of those companies.
For many people in construction, as well as in other industries, the concept of managing their careers is foreign to them. But, the reality is that if you don't manage your career, 10 or 20 years will pass and you'll look back and wonder why you are where you are. In most cases, it’s because you simply left your career up to others.
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