Construction experience a plus

Jul 25, 2021

Young (or less experienced) engineers and designers may lack construction experience. Fast track their learning with these approaches.

Young engineers and designers, often recently graduated from college, have so much of what design consulting firms are looking for – an eagerness to learn, an open mind for the new and unknown, and a willingness to try anything. Yet they’re lacking something that can’t be learned in a classroom: construction experience.

Years of design and field experience enables civil engineers to understand that what works on paper may not work in the field. Understanding how construction is accomplished helps engineers consider construction during design, aids in conversations with owners and contractors, and creates a better set of plans for a project that a contractor can have confidence in bidding tighter. But (except for perhaps a short-term co-op experience during college) most young engineers haven’t yet been able put in the time to understand how much space is required to actually install a manhole or what a contractor has to do to tie into an existing water main. Can young and less experienced design engineers, then, be fast-tracked to understand construction beyond their physical years of experience?

The “why” of this issue is worth noting. In the world of design, the contractor should be considered the client as much as the actual owner of the project, as the contractor’s ability to construct a design on budget with timeliness, effectiveness, and accuracy will play a major factor in whether or not the owner views the design experience as a success. So while there is no true substitute for actual time in the field spent observing and asking questions, there are a few approaches to increasing construction awareness for younger or less-experienced staff:

  • Create an initiative and put someone in charge. Someone in your firm gets excited about construction. (It’s an engineering firm, so if no one is excited, you may have a bigger problem than lack of construction experience.) Seek out that person (or a team of people) and give them the opportunity and the freedom to make construction learning experiences a priority for the company. Have them organize field trips to your firm’s construction sites on key construction days, set up tours of fabrication facilities (a pre-cast structure manufacturer or asphalt plant, for instance), bring in contractors to review what challenges they had turning the plans into reality, and research videos of construction applications and methods to share firmwide. Keep in mind that the champion of this initiative does not have to be someone who has a lot of construction experience – you can let him or her learn along with the others. Indeed, someone without a lot of construction experience will ask great questions and will potentially have more drive to help both themselves and others.
  • Put the responsibility on the mentees. We want to imagine that our firm’s seasoned project managers will remember (and desire) to take a less-experienced designer with them each time they head into the field. Realistically, however, we have often overwhelmed these people with other responsibilities, and this may not happen without a lot of reminding. Put that responsibility on the less-experienced employee. Help the less experienced recognize opportunities to get out in the field through conversation with experienced staff and/or in your regular project update meetings. Then make it the mentee’s responsibility to ask the mentor if he or she can come along. This not only gets the less experienced staff on the job site, but also provides opportunities for them to step out of their comfort zones and ask for help from people who may seem like wise, old veterans. Of course, this only works if said veteran is willing to teach. Make it clear that helping a younger or less-experienced coworker learn is both well worth the time and effort for the individuals and the firm.
  • Provide the time. Recognize that the activities mentioned can take considerable time, both for your construction experience champion to research and facilitate and for those who are participating. Perhaps participants will be driving an hour to a site where bridge beams are being set or an experienced project manager will be spending an extra 30 minutes on-site giving less-experienced coworkers a rundown of what’s happening and why. Be OK with that. Make sure your people understand that this will take time “on the clock” and that’s intentional. Nothing says, “this is not important” like “don’t use any of your regular hours/production time to work on this.” Firms already can’t afford to lose construction experience to retirement or turnover, let alone excuses that this initiative isn’t a productive use of resources. Any investment requires giving of something now for tomorrow’s gain, and this is not different. Do we want to be better at our jobs next year or not?

While construction experience isn’t something that can magically happen overnight, or even over a couple of years, putting systems in place to help expose less experienced staff to more construction environments and processes will be worthwhile. Use the resources you have – your people and your projects – to create a learning environment for all. With a firmwide commitment and some intentionality, this too is a challenge we can design a solution for.

Matt Hoying is president at Choice One Engineering. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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