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By Duane Craig
February 20, 2017
When Chief Project Engineer Dan Bard got a glimpse of the architect’s vision for a five-story spiral stairway, he knew he was in for a challenge. Not only did he have to factor loads and vibrations into the stair’s design, but he also had to contend with the complicated geometry of making it fit as the centerpiece to the structure.
His answer to simplifying fabrication and installation was to build the stairway in sections––lowering each section through the roof to workers who assembled the structure piece by piece.
While not every project has its own project engineer, there are plenty that do. From this spiral staircase to the Canakkale suspension bridge in Turkey (billed as the world’s longest suspension bridge), construction project engineers help turn the imagined into reality.
From a career perspective, it’s a good time to be a project engineer. The demand for them has grown steeply. Indeed, an online job board, reported a 6.5% growth in the number of job postings for construction project engineers from August through December 2016––the steepest increase since the September 12 to November 12, 2014 timeframe. The two most common types of engineers on construction projects are civil engineers and engineering managers. The job outlook for civil engineers through 2024 is 8% growth, while the need for engineering managers is expected to grow by 2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chemical engineers, environmental engineers, and mechanical engineers also figure prominently in construction projects, although they might work less on a project-wide role and focus instead on specialized portions of the project.
Project engineers start with a four-year degree in one of the engineering disciplines. Mechanical or civil engineering is a common starting point. For specialized construction like wind energy projects, aerospace or electrical engineering degrees are good starting points. Once you’ve got the degree, experience is what sets you up for advancement. Fortunately, there are many ways to get the experience you need.
Just consider Ina Aittanen’s path. With a Bachelor of Engineering degree, she was working as a production engineer for Lemminkäinen, an infrastructure, building, and paving contractor based in Finland. Her daily tasks included scheduling, cost control, preparing contracts related to the construction site, and quality control. After a career development talk with her supervisor, she warmed up to the idea of trying out something new. That led to her new position where she also now handles the procurement aspects of projects. It’s often through steps like these that beginning engineers expand their understandings of the total project, setting them up for jobs with greater responsibilities.
Experience is also directly correlated to your salary. An engineer at mid-career could expect a salary of almost $71,000, which is 18% higher than the national average for construction project engineers. But, once you move into the late-career range, you could find you’ll command a salary around $82,000, and that’s without bonus or profit sharing which might add from $500 to $15,000 to your annual pay.
Many project engineers don’t stay project engineers throughout their careers, preferring instead to move into positions with greater responsibilities, and more pay, like construction project managers, according to PayScale. More project engineers move on to project manager roles than any other role. The second most followed career path is becoming an assistant project manager. Moving up from project manager usually means becoming a senior project manager, or construction manager, overseeing multiple projects. A few project engineers move on to become directors of construction. These jobs are usually with corporations that have their own construction programs where they build their own stores or other commercial structures.
Some project engineers decide to specialize, going into a role like project manager of engineering. In this job, the engineer oversees a group of engineers who work on complex engineering projects like refineries and chemical plants.
Project engineers sometimes find they like the details, and working on very specific portions of projects. So, a project engineer might initially move to a construction estimator job with the plan to eventually become senior estimator. With specialized training, some project engineers gravitate to civil engineering where they oversee road, highway, and infrastructure projects like those required by states and municipalities.
One of the challenges in planning your career as a project engineer is the possibility of getting into a situation where your upward mobility is limited. This is especially true for project engineers working for small construction firms. While you might want to move into an estimator role, or an assistant project manager role, the company might not need you there. A related challenge is that your skills fit into a number of different roles. This means that you can find yourself shuffled through a series of jobs that don’t fit your goals for advancement just because the company needs someone with your skills to do those jobs.
Project engineers bring the power of engineering to construction management. Besides understanding the career options, it’s important to understand how to manage your career. Stay tuned for more information on career management for project engineers.
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