Discussion Thread

  • 1.  Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 06-27-2020 04:09 AM
    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.
    Current Struggles:
    • 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.
    Final Thoughts
    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
    Indianapolis IN

  • 2.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 06-29-2020 10:14 AM
    Benjamin, I'm not much further along in my career than you, but here are a few thoughts:

    -just because it is typical to transition into office work or project management, no one should be forced down that path
    -there are consulting firms that encourage community involvement. I know our company has a policy on volunteer work that I've taken advantage of to do literacy work with elementary school kids during work hours
    -you might look into local chapters of AEC industry organizations. Other professionals in the area (architects, engineers, contractors, developers, City officials) may be able to point you to firms with more flexibility or field opportunities. They may even have a connection to get you in the door.

    Good luck!

    Heidi Wallace EI,P.E.,M.ASCE
    Tulsa OK

  • 3.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 06-29-2020 10:15 AM

    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
    Transportation Engineer
    Bismarck ND

  • 4.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 06-30-2020 10:13 AM
    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

  • 5.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 06-30-2020 09:27 AM

    Have you considered a career in local government? There are some career paths in local government that allow for a mix of design work in the office and field work. If this is something you think may interest you, I would suggest looking through position descriptions at various cities/counties to learn more about the type of work. I would be happy to set up a time to talk and provide further insights based on my experience.

    Ramzi Awwad, PE
    M. ASCE

    Ramzi Awwad P.E., M.ASCE
    Engineering Bureau Chief
    Arlington County Government Engineer Bureau
    Arlington VA

  • 6.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 08-01-2020 12:49 PM
    Although it might be way too soon to be thinking about long term goals, I see that you really like your work and enjoy being in the field. Your education may have headed you into design, but you might consider construction.Your working for the right contractor and using your experience and knowledge in the afore-mentioned fields could surely be a good asset in working with clients and understanding their problems and goals. My experience in construction may differ than others, but I probably spent two days a week in the field- whether on site visits for new work or visiting current projects. I very much enjoyed my work in construction (I am retired) and had a lot of fun as well as a lot of problems to solve (that is really what engineers do- whether in design or construction).

    Jim Worrell, Retired
    PE retired, RLS (retired)
    Raleigh, NC

  • 7.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 08-04-2020 09:19 AM
    I can't think of a position that would fit all what you're looking for. I work as a field engineer in the frozen north. We cram a years worth of construction into a 6-9 month period and take the other months off. This system would allow you work in the field and then be involved in the longer non-profit projects you would like to be a part of. The firm I work for also does weekend events where a family is selected and we help with home implement and maintance of the property for that weekend.

    Dustin Leduc A.M.ASCE
    Field Engineer
    Shakopee MN

  • 8.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 08-02-2020 09:51 AM


    One of the things that helped me gain a wide variety of experience was to work for a very large engineering firm (10,000+ employees). While sometimes you may feel like a very small cog in a very large wheel, in my opinion, it is a great way to have access to a wide variety of opportunities in one place.

    I spent more than 20 years with the same firm but got to work on an array of interesting projects. While I was there, I did everything from designing landfills and water and wastewater treatment plants to designing the pedestrian plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I got to design embassy sites abroad, and local and regional parks right here at home. The firm I worked for also does a lot of work in disaster relief. They send teams of engineers to assess damage and help with recovery after hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. They also have a strong commitment to volunteer organizations like Water for People and Engineers without Borders. While I am pretty sure that participants still donated their time on the projects, the company provided funding for projects and allowed employees the flexibility to take time off and travel to do the work.

    I have always been a design engineer but was still able to do a fair amount of fieldwork performing construction administration on projects I designed. I also got to travel to some strange and unusual places. My job has taken me to Istanbul, Turkey to help develop solutions to a large landfill slope failure; to Iceland to sample wastewater (ugh!) and help identify how polluted stormwater was entering the ocean around the US naval base there; to Paris, France to help a team figure out why there was water leaking onto the crypt below the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial.

    All that being said, I spent the first 10 years building my technical skills. And observing career paths of colleagues at all levels, I think 10 years is pretty typical. But once you have that basic "civil engineering toolkit," in hand, you can apply it to almost any type of work. And if you think about it, your client doesn't hire an engineer to administer their budget and schedule. Your client hires and engineer because they have a technical problem that needs to be solved. Even if you end up in a project management role, you will be a much better project manager because you can solve technical problems.

    So how did I find all this opportunity? There were a number of things I did along the way that really helped:

    1. Be excellent – Strive to do the best job that you can, regardless of size or importance of the assignment. Demonstrating competence and a can-do attitude is the best way to demonstrate the value you bring to your company and the projects you work on.
    2. Don't be afraid to accept an unusual assignment – Having unusual or niche skill sets on your resume can bring interesting opportunities.
    3. Speak up about your interests – If there is an interesting project you wan to work on, make sure your supervisor and the project manager are aware of your interest. The answer won't always be "yes," but if you don't ask, the answer will always be "no."
    4. Ask, "How can I help?" – If you don't want a "no" answer, ask the question in a way that doesn't result in a simple yes or no answer.
    5. Teach yourself – If you are told "no," because you lack a particular skill set or need training, learn it on your own time and volunteer to help on a project alongside someone more experienced. This gives you the opportunity to both demonstrate what you have learned, and to ask questions of someone more experienced.
    6. Find an advocate – Get to know someone that is positioned to help you find opportunities to work on interesting projects. It could be your supervisor or mentor, or it might be someone outside your direct chain of command.

    Melany Alliston-Brick, P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineering Practice Director, North America
    Toole Design Group, LLC
    Silver Spring, MD
    (571) 830-4272

  • 9.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 08-04-2020 04:07 PM
    You ever hear the saying, 10,000 hours of practice in any field is the benchmark of becoming an expert.  For a FT employee, that equates to 5 years at 2080 hrs annually.  I think it's flawed, in the sense that I've come across some very talented individuals and some not so talented with varying degrees of experience.  I say that because whomever you are being advised by, I would ask myself whose best interest are they looking out for.  Is it yours?  What is the order of succession at your employer?  Are they upholding their mission statement, policies, values, and culture or is it just for show?  The rise and fall of an employee's career in a employee-employer relationship depends on this phenomenon.

    If you want to do more field work, do project work and lots of it.  This standard progression for engineers, is a career limiting philosophy.  You should "play ball - practice engineering, etc." to your strengths.  If field work is your passion I would look into roles within an owner-operator or field service oriented business model.

    I think volunteer work is generally seen as off-hours, and you would probably find more time to commit to volunteer work as a 1099 independent contractor.

    If you're being advised to learn a distribution system modeling that your employer anticipates as value added, than I would embrace it, but find time to educate yourself on the other software programs at your leisure.

    I think gen-X has an overwhelming influence in leadership positions in this day and age, and some of those gen-Xers have a very progressive and oppressive nature.  Be leery of who has your best interest.

    Work that seems stultifying now, will probably remain constant.

    Joseph Aquino A.M.ASCE
    Katy TX

  • 10.  RE: Long-Term Career Path Advice

    Posted 08-06-2020 02:42 PM
    Benjamin, My two cents is find role ASAP where you can develop a technical competence, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The skills and experience you acquire will establish you as a solid engineer and give you 'street credibility' as you try to find the perfect role. The risk of waiting or delaying is that the window will close when you are employable for entry level work.

    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX