Given the opportunity, would you want to know the future? Harder still, would you make the decision to be responsible for it?
Most of us would agree that it's better not to know, to simply let the future take care of itself. Most of us, that is, except project engineers, whose job it is to anticipate, shape and take responsibility for the outcome of today's work.
Specifically, project engineering involves planning the work; organizing a team to bring the task to fruition; controlling each of the steps along the way, including solving problems; and ultimately, being responsible for the final result. Being detail-oriented is criticalAre the engineers' specs workable? How much will each phase cost and can it be done under budget? Are the materials received from the suppliers precisely what the designs call for? Where does everyone begin?
Dealing with uncertainty is all in a day's work, as is forecasting how long the undertaking will last, what it will cost and what problems might arise. Katrina Washington, a project engineer with Crowder Construction Co., in Charlotte, N.C., says occasionally, the same problems will spring up from one project to another. "The more I work on the same types of projects, the more I learn and can anticipate them early."
Estimating and scheduling each phase of an operation is only part of it. A project engineer must also communicate with others who need to be kept abreast of the project's status. In addition, command of computer programs not usually associated with engineering is a must: scheduling, spread sheet and word processing software are just a few.
Name: Katrina Washington
Title: Project Engineer
Company: Crowder Construction Co.
Education: B.S., M.S., civil engineering, Clemson University
Job Description: "I work on nine projects. I'm responsible for scheduling, material and equipment procurement and processing shop drawings, which involves checking information from suppliers and vendors against engineers' specs and plans."
Current Projects: "The majority of the projects I work on are upgrades or additions to water treatment plants. They involve everything from basic engineering, like constructing the building, to details such as furnishings, carpeting and plumbing."
How She Started in Project Engineering: "I spent two summers at Exxon Chemical in a project engineering internship, dealing mainly with project scheduling. That experience played a major role in where I am today."
Why She Accepted Her Current Job: "I had been working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) for two years, as an assistant resident engineer in construction. I left because I was looking for more of a challenge. The work became routinea road is a road."
Biggest Surprise About Working: "Just about everything! When you're in school, you learn different components of design and scheduling, but once it comes to putting it all together, it really hits you."
Biggest Problems Encountered: "Something that I'm still working on is coordinating all the components of a project. For example, one building we constructed had a centrifuge with a conveyor attached to it. The conveyor goes through the wall, so not only do you have to plan for windows and doors, there also has to be an opening for the conveyor and it has to be in the right place.
"Also, some of the plants that we upgrade have been around longer than I've been alive. When we rehab them, we never know what's on the other side of the walls or below the floors. Some [floor] plans don't show everything."
On Encountering Racism in the Workplace: "When I was in the DOT, I was in a supervisory role. The department had been traditionally made up of all white men and everybody knew each other. As an outsider, it was very hard to come in and expect them to listen to me. It was even harder as an African American and harder still as a woman. I had people tell me directly they weren't going to listen to me.
"In my current job, people will call me when the project manager is out and assume that I'm the secretary. I'll let them finish talking, then squeeze in the fact that I'm not the secretary. For example, they may ask when they're going to be paid and I'll say, 'I'm a technical person. You'll have to talk to the administrative assistant.'"
Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Number one is people skills. It's hard to keep up with the number of people that I talk to everyday. I talk to engineers, city planners, vendors, subcontractors and different staff members. It's almost as though you have to speak a different language for every person."
The Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Her: "One professor said the only stupid question is the one not asked. Sometimes I find myself asking the same questions over and over, but I know that I have to if I want to understand and have the project run smoothly."
Advice to Future Project Engineers: "Take the Engineer in Training exam. I see that as a matter of major importance. Right now in construction there's not a lot of emphasis on professional registration, but who knows what will happen in ten years.
"I'd also say to take advantage of all training. If your company is offering any training, take it. The company will move forward with or without you."
What the Future Might Hold: "In three or four years, I plan to have my P.E. license. I hope to be able to step into a position as a project manager, but it takes a lot of experience to work to that level in this field.
"One day, I plan to get my Ph.D. in civil engineering and eventually teach."
Name: Sheila Thurston
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, University of Virginia
Job Description: Member of a team that evaluates project proposals, which are then implemented by a project execution team.
Current Projects: Design of utilities and power plants, including some international work. "We're treading new ground in that respect."
Why She Accepted the Job: "The variety of work Bechtel offers. I had other job offers, but they didn't seem as interesting to me, because they didn't offer me as many different tasks."
Biggest Challenges Encountered: "The ownership [of a project]. It's a challenge to say, 'This is my project. I'm responsible. It's my name on it.' It took about two years for me to accept that and be confident about it. But it's good in a sense. It makes you more confident about what you put out.
"Also, getting everything done in the time you're given and making sure you're still putting out a quality product. Normally we have about three weeks to work on a project. But it doesn't end in three weeks. If your design was impressive enough, it will [be approved and] come back to you."
Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "The main aspect of the team I work on is coordination between disciplines, communication and teamwork. That's just as important as the technical side.
"Maintaining a positive attitude is important, too. Make sure you don't let little things affect your work, especially if you're working with people you don't like."
The Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Her: "Someone had mentioned to me to be a jack of all trades, to know a little bit about everything. It helps in interfacing on a day-to-day basis to be knowledgeable about everything rather than being a specialist.
Someone else told me to be observant. Watch people. Those whom you admire, take their good traits and try to be like them."
Advice to Future Project Engineers: "Everyone coming in should know that what you learned in school may not be directly applied to the job and more than likely, you will have to learn more. That's not a bad thing, but you may come out thinking your education is done."
What the Future Might Hold: "My main goal is to get on a project where I would actually go to a site. It gives you a better view of what you're working with on a daily basis if you go out and see it."