I gave a guest lecture recently where the students – having heard that I’d had a range of jobs – asked what the best structural engineering job was for a graduate. Should they use their structural engineering degree to get a job as a structural engineering consultant? Or as a structural engineer working for a contractor? Or even should they pivot from structural engineering and look for a graduate job elsewhere? A structural engineering degree gives you lots of career options and hopefully you will get a good job and even if you’re lucky have an interesting career that best matches your unique strengths and interests. There are no perfect jobs but these are some of the things I have seen and learnt from my first-hand experience.
I have worked in different countries and in a wide variety of jobs in the construction sector. For the sake of this blog I will let you know about three that I have done in the UK. Working for a contractor, working for an engineering consultant at a big firm on big projects and working for a small engineering consultant on small projects.
If you have a structural engineering degree you are amongst the cleverest and most educated people in the world. Not many people have the abilities you have and even fewer progress to get chartered. It is a respected profession because of how much money is spent on buildings and infrastructure and the important role we play in ensuring safety and in many other ways too.
It offers good opportunities to work abroad particularly in countries where the economy is booming or which are building infrastructure for the first time. It also has lots of transferable skills that are highly sought after – problem solving, team work, dealing with uncertainty, communicating in different ways etc.
In the UK it is quite common to change what career you do, sometimes many times. My friends and ex-classmates who have decided to do other things have used their structural engineering degree as a basis to be a construction lawyer, a civil servant, an entrepreneur, an insurance assessor, a software designer, a management consultant. Even to fund their real passion, being a sports referee!
Working for a Big Contractor on a Big Project
The main advantage of working for a big contractor is seeing things built, doing an active job with a tangible result.
Contractors employ structural engineers for setting out, to manage packages and to check quality. There may also be other responsibilities such as duties related to health and safety or managing budgets.
A simple definition of setting out is measuring where things should go. It involves working alone or in a pair with a tape measure, a theodolite or a total station to fix measuring points so the different trades know where to build. For example knocking pegs in a muddy field to show where the building should be built or marking accurately with a sharp pencil where a wall should go. It can be really fun if you’re doing it with someone you enjoy chatting to or it can be quite stressful if there are people waiting for you to finish before they can start their work.
Managing packages means managing a part of the project for example the foundations or the lightning conductors. It involves managing other people, often other companies and maybe senior people at those companies with more experience than you. Making sure all of the necessary planning has been done and regularly checking progress.
Checking quality is making sure everything has been done correctly. It might mean measuring a steel post has been installed vertical enough or going through a checklist before concrete is poured. It involves engineering judgment about which defects matter and how they can best be sorted out.
I think in general contractors earn more than consultants and you get to progress faster to managing people possibly within the first few months in the job. It is easy to travel and people can invest in property in different locations which supplements their income.
Your skills are likely to be highly valued on the construction site because there will not be many engineers. On the other hand this means you will be straight in at the deep end and there will be less people to learn from or to ask advice. The particular contractor I worked for did offer lots of formal training opportunities which I found very helpful.
It’s a job particularly attractive to extroverts who like lots going on and being outside and talking to people. I am somewhere between an introvert and an extrovert and so enjoyed meeting a range of people but also found it one of the most tiring jobs I’ve done. I was required to fill out a diary every day and there was lots of other form filling. The quality checks required prolonged concentration which reminded me of a job interview as I had to make engineering decisions under pressure.
As engineers progress to be more senior they generally do more management (meetings, emails, form filling) and less time on site. Alternatively you might be headhunted by one of the sub-contractors as I was after less than a year or some people also go on to set up their own development companies.
Unlike working for a consultant it will be many years before you are senior enough to meet the client and you will work on less projects over your career, albeit in greater depth. It was a long working day from 8am to at least 6pm and people didn’t seem to have hobbies or meet friends (other than colleagues) after work. Compared to other places I worked the average age was older and there seemed to be a higher proportion who’d had relationship breakdown but maybe that was a coincidence.
Working for a Big Consultant on Big Projects
The main advantage of working for a big consultant is getting to work in a big team of like-minded people and possibly working on big projects people have heard of.
Consultants employ structural engineers to design projects often working with architects or contractors. There may also be inspections of existing buildings, site visits to check construction or possibly expert witness work advising lawyers.
You are quite likely to work on a few projects a year ranging from early concept design to detailed construction information. At the beginning you will be doing mostly load takedowns and member analysis (structural calculations). There are typically more options considered than on small projects which means re-doing the design lots of times until the best solution is found.
There are lots of people around with relevant experience to learn from so you don’t always have to ask the same person for advice. There may also be good internal training opportunities or a graduate scheme. The teams are often fluid and so if there are people you don’t click with you’re not stuck with them forever.
Compared to working for a contractor there is more work-life balance although there can still be sustained periods of late nights or weekend working depending on the project and your boss. A lot of the buildings you design will never get built.
Structural engineering consultants at big companies typically earn less as there is so much competition to work there. As structural engineers progress at a consultant they get to work more autonomously although it typically takes quite a number of years before you get to meet the client or have significant management responsibilities.
This option is the most rewarding for talking to people socially about which project you are working on. Seeing how impressed people with no connection to engineering are that you worked on a particular project makes you realise what a great job it is.
Working for a Small Consultant on Small Projects
The main advantage of working for a small consultant is having a varied job, meeting the clients, getting a broad network and seeing lots of projects built.
The type of work is similar to working for a big consultant but spending less time on each type of activity. There is generally less focus on member analysis (maths) and more on structural detailing (drawing). There will also be lots of site visits.
You are quite likely to work on up to thirty projects a year ranging from early concept design to detailed construction information. They may also be business tasks you can get involved with and help shape the company culture.
The pay is generally better than big consultants and you progress faster. The projects are unlikely to be so well known but may have important or famous clients. It’s quite likely you will meet numerous clients in your first year.
This option is the most rewarding for getting a variety of experience as quickly as possible. As the team is smaller you will get to know people better but that also means it’s extra important to get on with everyone. You will have lots of exposure to the boss so if they are good you will learn a lot.
A structural engineering degree opens doors to a variety of interesting and stretching careers. You might choose to work for a big contractor to see things built and do an active job with a tangible result. Or work for a big consultant in a large team of like-minded people working on big projects which people have heard of. Or you may choose to work for a small consultant to get a varied job, to meet the clients and see lots of projects built.
Unfortunately there are no perfect jobs but whichever way you choose to go I hope you have an enjoyable career that best matches your unique strengths and interests.