Those were great questions @Benjamin Heckard
. For what it's worth, I struggled with many of the same things you mentioned throughout the years. This is my 23rd year in engineering and construction management. Here's some thoughts on your comments:
- keep developing a particular expertise. For instance, I specialize in large assembly occupancy commercial structures and immersive storytelling environments i.e, churches, performing arts theaters, theme parks, museums, zoos, etc. Opportunities will seek you out when people recognize that you are the person to go to when it involves your specialty.
- As you move up in your career you may find the technical work becomes less of your day to day. If you are like me, you may mourn this a little. The technical is still there, but now you are really good at it so it takes less time. I think engineers enjoy climbing the proverbial mountain of difficult things, particularly throughout college, after a few years of being out you will spend a period of time in what I'll call production mode. That's where that expertise will be developed. You will see the same things over and over and will begin to develop that engineer's judgement, where you know right away where the trouble spots will be.
- If you go into project management, the above feeling will be a little more severe. When I got into senior project management, I remember calling my uncle, a SVP in a zoological environment, he talked about how he loved working with the animals but now works almost entirely with budgets, contracts, and people. None of of which was the reason he got into that profession. I felt the same way. I loved designing and building things but management is all about people, process, and money. Make that choice knowingly.
-Keep learning new things but expect to do it on your own time. If you want to learn a new software or financial management, etc. you'll mostly need to be a self educator. Your university professors probably talked a lot about wanting you to be "life-long learners" that's what they were talking about. From your employers perspective, there's a limited amount of training money and it needs to go towards learning specific things that advance the companies goals in a very short time window.
-Value your time. Your employer sees your time as production time and you should too. Get used to asking yourself, "is this worth my time" a lot.
-Non-profit work is an interesting discussion and a point that I think a lot of people misunderstand. There are roles that would allow you to do that kind of work full time but they are nontraditional pathways so you will have to look very deeply for those opportunities. I currently work as a SVP of construction management for a non-profit investment and lending firm. I also voluntarily serve on the board of directors for two non-profits. I get a lot of odd looks at when I tell people what I do for a living because it doesn't fit in their heuristics of an engineer or a construction manager. One misunderstanding about NFP's, is Non-profits still need to turn a profit, just in NFP's it's called a surplus, the surplus funds are moved to reserve accounts for funding the NFP during tough financial times (like the corona shut downs). Volunteer labor is a large part of the work force and since NFP's have different sources of revenue's than for-profit enterprises so we try to control the wages a lot more consistently. Salaries may be less than what you might see in other similar roles where shareholder distribution is the main goal. NFP's have a missional goal which can be at odds with money sometimes. In some NFP's you might be tasked with raising your own funds for salary before you start. I think that might explain why you've gotten some resistance to volunteer opportunities.
Jesse Kamm PhD, PMP, A.M.ASCE
Senior Vice President of Construction Management
Sent: 06-29-2020 10:08 AM
From: Miguel Andrews
Subject: Long-Term Career Path Advice
There is a job out there that you would enjoy doing more than your current one, you just have to keep looking for that opportunity. In the meantime, though you're not practicing exactly the type of engineering you envisioned yourself doing, remember that there is still a lot of time left to do so.
One of the great things about our field is that it is broad so there is a really good chance of finding a niche, but you can only do so by getting experience in different things until you find something you're really happy with. So, just because you're not doing, say floodplain modeling, the skills you are getting now will give you a different perspective and more to add when you're actually get on a team doing what you desire. All of your experience is valuable even if it's to just tell you what you don't like.
I think that what can guide you and make your intentions clear to your employer is a career plan in which you list out your short term and long term goals. Make it clear where you desire to be, and if opportunities are not provided to you, keep searching for the right company while making yourself marketable through workshops and courses.
It sounds like you would be a really great fit at a smaller firm where you have more responsibility and a wider range of work. Some state and local government agencies provide flexibility for doing charity work or be in the military. They would also train you well. Good luck and don't stress too much about your current job, you're headed in the right direction.
Miguel Andrews P.E., M.ASCE
Sent: 06-26-2020 07:07 PM
From: Benjamin Heckard
Subject: Long-Term Career Path Advice
I began my engineering career in 2017. Over the past 3 years, I have struggled to consistently find a way to use my engineering training and degree in the types of work I especially enjoy. I am seeking advice as I consider my long-term career path and goals. Please see below for more details.
Things I have enjoyed:
- Field work, site visits, working with my hands, and training people.
- My field work experiences have included operating & maintaining groundwater remediation sites, performing water balance studies for industrial clients, gathering water and wastewater samples, performing inspections at water and wastewater facilities, and more. Being an engineer in the field has allowed me to gain hands-on experience, act as my own boss in some situations, act as a liaison between engineers in the office and our clients, and build relationships as I have interacted with both sides one-on-one.
- Designing solutions for water and wastewater plants and helping plants run in a safer and more efficient manner.
- My design experience has included designing water and wastewater treatment plants and processes for both municipal and industrial clients. I have especially enjoyed performing design calculations and advising on appropriate treatment options.
- In school I really enjoyed learning and working with engineering software such as ArcGIS, EPANET, HEC-RAS, HEC-HMS, AutoCAD, and treatment plant modelling software.
- My experience with engineering software (post-graduation) has been limited to ArcGIS data analysis and map creation and creating or editing drawings in AutoCAD.
- Finally, I have had opportunities to practice engineering in non-profit opportunities and have found I especially enjoyed that work. These opportunities have included forming and leading volunteer groups with Habitat for Humanity; serving on a design and research team for well drilling in West Africa; serving with and helping lead disaster response volunteer trips; and helping research and design water purification technology for Haitian villages. However, I have found these opportunities to be few and far between especially over the past 3 years of my professional career, and have not been able to find a career path that would allow me to do this work on a more frequent or even full-time basis.
- I have been advised that as I grow as an engineer, I should expect to be in the office a majority of the time and that I will rarely have field work opportunities except for the occasional site-visit at the start of projects.
- I have been advised that it is not typical for consulting firms to provide flexibility for doing the type of volunteer work I would like to be involved in, as they would require more frequent and longer-term commitments.
- I have also generally been told that there are others who are already experienced with the types of software I have expressed interest in, and it does not make sense to train me. I was recently advised that there is an opportunity for me to learn some distribution system modeling for one of my current projects, so this may be changing.
- My career at my current employer has generally provided little opportunity for field work (the majority of the aforementioned field work was with my previous employer) or working with software, and the last 5-6 months have mainly consisted of technical writing of engineering reports, project specifications, and O&M manuals.
Thank you in advance for any guidance you may have, recommendations you might be able to make on long-term career path opportunities, and any other general insight you might be able to offer. I look forward to discussing with you. If you wish to reach out to me directly, please connect with me on LinkedIn or comment below with an alternative method.
Benjamin Heckard A.M.ASCE