Civil engineers working in construction often ask this question. There is not a catch-all answer here, but the short answer is you must be persistent in finding ways to do design work in your job.
The reason this is a tricky question to answer is that professional engineering license experience requirements differ in every state. That being said, I will focus my answer on how to implement design experience into a construction engineering position.
First let me say that, while I have never worked for a general contractor as a civil engineer, I have worked on projects where my company served as the construction management representative. Secondly, my wife, who is also a civil engineer, focused in geotechnical engineering, has worked for a contractor and spent many years on constructions sites. And no, we don’t sit around the house and talk about civil engineering all day – only a few hours a day.
Here are three actions you can take as a civil engineer in the construction field to increase design experience:
1. Volunteer to work with the design engineer of record as often as possible on your projects.
Often there will be a design engineer who has the responsibility of ensuring that projects are constructed according to plans and specifications. If you can work with that engineer on tasks related to the design – like shop drawing preparation, design-related meetings, and other design-related tasks – you might be able to get credit for design experience on these tasks.
In some states, the design engineer, even though not at the same company as yours, may be permitted to sign off on this experience for you.
2. Gain design experience through volunteer work.
I know an engineer who volunteered for a wonderful organization called Engineers Without Borders, who helped designed a water treatment system for a community in a developing country.
3. Consider taking a side job for a small sole-proprietor civil engineer.
If your company allows, consider taking on a part-time position with a very small one-person civil engineering company. Doing so can give you 5-10 hours of design experience per week and a chance to work with a P.E. one-on-one.
This can be a win-win, because often sole proprietors can’t commit to a full-time employee so a flexible arrangement like this works well for them, and of course you will get the much-needed design experience.
These are just a few ideas for gaining design experience as a civil engineer in a construction company. I would love to hear additional ideas or experiences in the comments below from those who have gone through this process.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that every U.S. state has different guidelines on what they deem design experience, so be sure that before you take action in your career, you are clear about your local guidelines.
Lastly, let me urge you to never accept the idea that you can’t gain design experience or sit for the P.E. exam if you work in construction; it’s just not true. Be persistent and find ways to gain experience and obtain your P.E. license. Your civil engineering career will be better for it.
Anthony Fasano, P.E., is the founder of The Engineering Career Coach website, which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts The Civil Engineering Podcast, and has written a bestselling book for engineers entitled Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.