Updated: Apr 23
Constantly re-reading the new starter instructions, not being able to sleep the night before, wearing overly formal clothes for the first (and last) time to the office, feeling like every question you ask is stupid, and being walked around and introduced to everyone in the team. The first day of work for Civil Engineer’s is awkward, but exciting and is definitely a lasting memory. Here I will cover 5 things I wish I’d known as a new starter in the construction industry.
5. If you didn’t already take an internship then you could be in for a surprise.
The truth is that most Civil Engineering degrees will give you a ‘foundation’ (excuse the pun) of knowledge. After you graduate, you will be able to understand the principles of Engineering and perhaps some general understanding of management and business. Unless you took an internship or worked on a construction site before you will not have experienced an angry Foreman asking why the steel beams which arrived on the site are 30cm too short, on a rainy Tuesday morning, whilst stood in a muddy field.
Civil Engineer’s are generally the reliable, highly educated members of any construction project and you should expect to not always be sat in your comfortable office but being pulled into any duties where they need someone to be held accountable. The majority of Engineers working in the industry are not in design roles, in fact only around 4% of a project budget is usually spent on design and therefore you may draw upon your foundational knowledge developed at University from time to time but you may actually end up quite far removed from it.
4. You will usually be protected from the realities of the job, for a while.
Within a month or two of working the job most graduates I meet start to seek more responsibility than they are given. It’s great to be ambitious. But the undeniable truth is that until they have worked for 2 or 3 years their understanding of the intricate relationships between the different parties working on construction projects still needs to be developed. Ego’s need to be massaged. Politics needs to be played. Mistakes can be costly.
Managers are ultimately responsible for who they assign to projects and the varying levels of responsibility which are given. Most graduates don’t realize that managers are protecting them from the realities of the industry, not just for the good of the graduates but also because the manager will be held accountable if something goes wrong.
3. Finding technical references and past project references is really important.
Nearly all Engineers you come across (with a few notable exceptions) will want you to find past examples of calculations and technical information to use on their new project. You will get asked, “where have you done this before?” The reason for this is simple, copy and paste with a little amendment is far easier than starting something from scratch. Although every once in a while you will work on something new and sometimes revolutionary, the reality is most work has already been done before in some form or another and it can be repurposed, saving time and project budget. Finding these references though can be a challenge, if you don’t have references yourself and no one in your department has any technical references then you will need to search online.
Luckily civils.ai has a great source of information for Civil Engineers to use including geotechnical, structural, and tunneling open-source calculations. They are building a database of supplier technical data and digitized boreholes and making it all open and available to Engineers around the world.
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2. Focus on building relationships
Relationships are an almost unspoken key element of the industry. The construction industry is traditional. Quite often a problem can be resolved by a senior manager simply stating the same words a junior engineer has repeatedly been saying. This can be because of track record, a prior history of working together, and being old drinking buddies. Whatever the reason, relationships are key to resolving issues and being efficient.
My advice to fresh graduates is to focus on making great relationships with your colleagues, especially those around your same level as one day you will be in higher positions in the industry, and your relationship could be incredibly valuable and help you sleep better at night if things are not going well on a project. Try joining an Engineering institution, or an Industry society, or simply attend conferences and network to really get ahead with this.
1. Most managers don’t want you to reinvent the wheel
I made this mistake myself. Perhaps it’s from a childhood spent playing with lego too much and a vivid imagination. The first design handed to me was for a temporary works design of a basket for lifting specialist materials on site. Instead of trying to find a previous design of such baskets I decided to try and create my own revolutionary basket design, welded together with a wide range of different steel section sizes and types. I didn’t discuss it closely with my boss until nearing the end of the initial design process, with my intention being to impress him with my design skills.
I think it’s safe to say he was quite horrified with my Frankenstein-like design and angry at me for wasting my time. He passed me an example design and said to amend it instead. It’s important to understand you may have ambitions to be the best Engineer ever to enter the industry but try to understand your manager's requirements first.
Insight from Civils.ai founder Stevan Lukic