Graduating from an engineering degree is an incredibly rewarding experience. It is the culmination of (at least) four years of very hard work. So, congrats! However, now the real work starts.
No matter what you decide to do, whether you’re a site engineer, a design engineer, a project manager there are a few skills that will be critical to your success in this industry. I am sure people’s opinions on this topic will vary according to their personal experience, so I encourage others to share their thoughts on this topic. The more sharing of ideas in our industry, the better.
The boring fundamentals
Without doubt, the most important skills for any graduate engineer are related to the core fundamentals they learned at University. Speaking from personal experience as a structural design engineer, one of the most important courses to me was Theory of Structures 1. This was our first of three structural theory courses throughout my degree. However, it is amazing to see how senior engineers often simplify problems down to a basic bending moment diagram and shear force diagram. Especially when using more advanced finite element analysis software, the basics of structural theory come in handy to verify that your results are in the order of magnitude you expect.
I want to stress that these fundamentals are absolutely critical to success and should never be overlooked. It is from these core skills that each of the following skills follow on from.
It’s reasonably well accepted in the civil engineering industry that we are undergoing a period of change. This change is in part due to the adaptation of technology to construction which helps to improve efficiency and productivity. These tools are being applied to all aspects of projects, from the construction site to the design office. One absolutely critical skill is the ability to quickly learn and become proficient at these software packages. For those graduating now, having grown up with technology and the internet, this will be fairly straightforward. In some cases, the firm you work for may seem quite backward in their software systems.
Open to change
As I mentioned above, the construction industry is going through a never before seen period of change. Technology is making many things now possible that could not be done by old methods. Design techniques such as computational design and 4D or 5D simulation are now possible and becoming commonplace on projects all over the world. Out on site, point cloud capture and new robotics are forcing major changes in the way we construct. For many engineers and architects that have been in the industry for decades, these changes will feel foreign to them. You will quickly learn that the construction industry is a very risk averse industry (and rightly so given the cost of failure) and when a new technique or method is proposed, expect it to be critically scrutinised. This places graduates in an odd position in the workforce where they are the least experienced in terms of technical skills and project experience but possibly some of the most tech savvy members of staff. Firms will need to leverage these new capabilities to their advantage and graduates need to understand that all of their ideas will not be accepted for reasons which may not be immediately apparent to you.
As we move to more computational design focussed methodologies, the ability to develop and apply creative solutions will be the point of difference between engineers. If a contractor comes to you with a problem and a proposed solution, you could simply deliver them with their desired solution. But the engineers that will be able to make a real impact will be those that can find an alternative solution that better satisfies the needs of their client. Whether that’s through reducing material usage, reducing time cost, reducing dollar cost or providing an alternative solution that better satisfies all external stakeholders. When starting out, it is likely that most of your creative, “out of the box” solutions will not be feasible for any number of reasons which you are not yet aware. But it is important to stay involved in that creative process with the senior staff. It is most important to be comfortable in being wrong, and never be scared to be wrong. One day you might have a great idea but never say it for fear of sounding stupid.
The ability to speak confidently and succinctly explain your thought process is very important to a graduate engineer. You will be getting quizzed fairly thoroughly on every design you bring to get reviewed by a senior engineer. So, you need to be able to explain why you have made the assumptions you have and be open to those assumptions being challenged by someone with many more years’ experience than you.
Engineering is obviously a project-oriented field and deadlines are a very regular thing. So, get used to meeting deadlines. This requires you to manage your own time and whatever projects you have on your plate. Depending on how your firm works you may have a number of senior engineers providing you with work, so your ability to judge how long a task will take is important to providing your manager with a realistic timeframe for task completion. This will improve with experience and time spent doing projects and you will get quicker as you improve.
Most importantly, keep learning and take every opportunity that comes your way.