Be Prepared for ‘Learning on the Job,’ Says Structural Engineering Leader

May 18, 2017
David Odeh
David Odeh

With spring graduation season in full swing, it’s a good time to take the temperature of the civil engineering job market.

David Odeh, P.E., S.E., SECB, F.SEI, F.ASCE, is well-positioned for insights as principal at Odeh Engineers Inc. in Providence, RI, a full-service structural engineering consulting firm at the forefront of the building-information-modeling revolution.

He talked with ASCE News about the current job outlook – especially within structural engineering – and what he looks for in new hires.

ASCE News: What is your sense of the job outlook for the latest crop of civil engineers, whether they’re coming out of grad school or undergrad?

Odeh: I would say the job outlook is excellent, probably better than it has been in a long time – not just in local areas that have been very economically prosperous but really across the country.

When I talk to my colleagues and interact with students who we’ve been interviewing for job openings, I see that they’re finding a lot of great opportunities across a broad spectrum of the structural engineering industry.

For those students who are qualified and have the right academic background combined with some internship and practical experience, there are really great job opportunities out there right now.

ASCE News: Are you seeing graduates entering the workforce with skills similar to what you had as a graduate? Are they more prepared? Less prepared? What are you seeing?

Odeh: I think many of the best candidates understand that they need to be prepared for a lot of creativity and learning on the job. They need to have more than just the job-specific skills to do design, but really a broad base of knowledge and critical thinking abilities to adapt to what is a rapidly changing industry.

We’re seeing the rise of the use of more digital-based design tools at a greater rate than we had in the past. And students wouldn’t necessarily learn those tools when they were in school, but they have to be able to rapidly pick them up and learn them and apply them in a way that’s logical.

And I think more and more the structural engineering candidates need to have a really good core understanding of structural behavior (not just codes and standards but an understanding of the basic concepts), because the projects that they’re going to work on will be very challenging. With the tools we have available to us we can do things that are pushing the envelope in design: new shapes of structures, taller buildings, longer spans, new materials or combinations of materials. And that’s not necessarily something you would’ve learned in school, those specific design elements. You have to be able to apply the important structural engineering concepts effectively to these new challenges, and usually do it very quickly.

ASCE News: Are you finding students who are prepared for that?

Odeh: Are we finding students who are prepared for that? [laughs] The answer is yes and no.

It really depends on what decisions they’ve made about their academic careers and what they’ve done over the course of their internships and their training before they come and get into the job market. We’ve had great luck in our firm with our new hires, including some who have come from maybe not the most traditional civil engineering programs.

We’ve had a lot of success in hiring great, well-prepared students from some of the architectural engineering programs that are out there. Most of our hires have been at the master’s level. We find that these AE students are coming into our firm well prepared with an understanding of building systems and the ways that building systems interact.

In our case, they’ve specialized in structural engineering, but they haven’t limited their knowledge or education to just structural systems. They’ve really studied how a building comes together, how it has to be coordinated to be successful. I’m personally a big fan of those programs. We’ve had a lot of success with them.

And a lot of the traditional structural engineering schools have started adapting their programs to be more holistic in nature, more practice-centered where the students get to work on projects as part of their master’s degree. They come to us well prepared to start thinking about building structures, in addition to the important skills that will let them start off and be productive right away.

Of course, that’s always a nice thing [laughs] if they have those skills – if they’ve learned, for example, building information modeling. That’s always a plus to us, because that means they can kind of speak our language. They can jump in immediately and start working on things.

And many times, those students who know BIM have learned it on their own. Because of a student project or just their own intellectual curiosity, they’ve chosen to pick up those tools and learn them. Much of the software we use is available to students for free. Those students who are motivated are going and learning it on their own, which is great.

See what other industry leaders and graduating students had to say about the current job market, as told to ASCE News.

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