photo of engineers working together in an office Jason Dixson Photography

As explored in the latest issue of Civil Engineering magazine and the ongoing ASCE “State of Civil Engineering” series, there is more civil engineering work right now than civil engineers.

And while this ratio is good for those qualified civil engineers looking to enhance their careers, it’s not a great situation for employers and project owners.

Bottlenecks in the talent pipeline mean it’s more important than ever for firms to maximize their new hires, particularly those entry-level engineers, so that they can contribute from day one. The last thing firms can afford to do is get caught in a never-ending cycle of hire, train, and re-train.

So what is it that civil engineers need to know before entering the profession?

The ASCE Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge is a good place to start. Now in its third iteration, it outlines 21 foundational, technical, and professional practice learning outcomes for individuals entering into responsible charge in the practice of civil engineering.

But it’s also interesting to get a snapshot of the industry right now – spring of 2023 - anecdotally from different engineering perspectives. So Civil Engineering Source talked with three people – a professor, a young engineer, and a hiring professional – about their points of view on what skills a young civil engineer needs to successfully enter the profession and contribute right away.

The professor

Julia Williams is perhaps biased when she points to communication skills as being essential for the professional civil engineer. She is an English professor, after all.

But she’s an English professor who was hired back in the 1990s at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology specifically to teach English and communication skills to STEM students.

“The initial interest was from civil engineering because civil engineering already had students struggling with things like town-hall meetings and client reports. So, that’s where I started,” Williams, Ph.D., said. “A lot of students choose engineering or math or science because they feel they have talents in that area, but they may not feel as confident in other areas like English, writing, and communication. I try to bridge the gap between what they feel strong in and what I know they need to be able to do.”

photo of Julia Williams Julia Williams
Julia Williams has the unique job of serving as an English professor at an institute of technology.

The skillset, Williams said, starts with developing a writerly empathy.

“At some point, you need to be taking into consideration the audience with whom you’re trying to communicate. I think students really struggle quite a bit with having empathy for a reader or understanding who that audience or reader is and accommodating those audiences. It’s everything from the technical terminology they might choose and how they organize the information that they’re presenting. I think it’s really centered around the audience, trying to understand that audience and what they need from you as a communicator.

This is a very 2023 skill, too. Williams was hired nearly 30 years ago to develop these skills in engineers, but she’s seen her students’ openness to honing their communication abilities come a long way.

“I remember early in my career, students would kind of glibly say, ‘I’m not going to have to write anything. I’m going to have my secretary do that,’ – meaning ‘That’s not my job; it’s somebody else’s,’” Williams said. “And that has changed a whole lot.

“I think they’re getting the message from industry that, ‘Yes, this is your job, because your name is on it, or you’re a P.E. and you certified this particular design, so you need to be responsible for it legally as well as professionally.

“I have seen a big transformation in that. I think many of the students I work with are pretty good at a lot of things. I appreciate the fact that some can be very good writers and very good engineers, and that’s a winning combination. Those are the students that really go far.”

The young engineer

For Nalah Williams, E.I.T., A.M.ASCE, the things that helped prepare her to enter the field came more from her civil engineering activities outside the classroom – her involvement with ASCE and the Construction Institute’s Student Days program and especially her three-year facility engineering internship with Kroger.

headshot of Nalah Williams

“This might be terrible to say, but I actually think I learned more from my internship than college,” Williams said, with a laugh. “Kroger had their own set of project managers, and I worked with them doing remodels of the grocery stores, new store builds, and other maintenance programs.

“There were probably at least seven project managers, and I would rotate working under each of them. It was great being able to see the different styles of how they worked. They all did things differently, so you see which management style you prefer. The projects would run into problems and seeing how you fix those problems was a huge learning experience.

“I definitely encourage anyone to get an internship. Even if it’s not what you end up going into, just being out there and seeing problems resolved really helps you because you can think back on that later when you’re in the profession.”

Williams completed her internship and her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in December 2019. She entered the field as a project designer in land development in Dallas, and her early-career experience might be instructive for employers dealing with the 2023 workforce crunch. She found a lot of things she was good at, and a lot of things she didn’t enjoy doing.

“I definitely found that sitting behind a computer 40 hours a week was not for me,” Williams said. “I enjoy the construction management side far better.”

Four years later, Williams was able to take the things she enjoyed and excelled at, minimize the negatives, and build her own business in residential property management and development.

“I think a big moment for me was realizing that I’m better on the client side,” Williams said. “Clients love me, I’m great at communicating our plans and some of my coworkers are not. I think as civil engineers something we can work on is some of our social skills.

“I had to learn to sell myself to my company to get more project management experience, telling them, ‘Hey, I know how to talk to these clients. They like me when I talk to them. They understand what I’m saying. So put me in position to keep doing that.”

For civil engineers to contribute immediately on the job, sometimes it’s less about what skills the civil engineer needs and more about how the job can cater to what the civil engineer does well.

“As a young engineer, you have to advocate for yourself,” Williams said. “You know what your strengths are.”

The hiring professional

In 24 years with Dewberry – first in Richmond, Virginia, and now in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a business unit manager – Robert “Skip” Notte, P.E., has looked at literally thousands of resumes from entry-level engineers.

The one thing he looks for immediately in each one?

“Internships,” Notte said. “One, it helps identify things that the potential candidate likes to do, as well as the things they know they don’t want to do. And usually, it means sustained involvement in the profession for a three-month period or potentially beyond. That typically means being exposed to different elements of our profession and not just the theoretical nature of what is learned at school.

“We like to believe that any engineer who is graduating has that foundational knowledge as an engineer. The question is, can that be applied? And those internships help to reinforce the applicability of what they’ve learned so they can start to grasp how they fit into the larger picture.”

Notte’s approach to talent isn’t strictly “What have you done?” either. It’s more “Who are you? What makes you tick? How will you fit?”

“You’re looking for those individuals who can thrive in the culture of your organization,” Notte said. “Then you can support them, so they want to stay.”

To that end, he’s asked the same question in interviews for two decades.

“When you look at a topographic map, do you see lines on paper or mountains and valleys?” Notte said.

“Some people are visual learners, visualizers who can see things that are not on paper; they can just see them in the air. That’s usually your mountains and valleys people. Others can easily comprehend it too, but they need to see it on paper first. And my statement to them is neither is incorrect. It’s just recognizing how you learn and how you absorb information so that we can all be more successful.

“And I think a lot of those practical applications of working among the team, understanding your strengths, understanding how you learn, being a sponge, your willingness to raise your hand and say ‘I don't know what you’re talking about, do you mind reviewing it?’ – all those things have been important in our profession since the first time I interviewed a candidate.

“You’re going to be working potentially with three or four different generations of people, and they may not all act the way you do or communicate the way you do. I’m not asking the candidate to change how they communicate but to be curious and ask questions to better understand how their co-workers prefer to communicate.”

photo of Skip Notte at Virginia Tech Kevin Young
Skip Notte, pictured far right, with students at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, during a student design competition at the Virginia Tech Land Development Design Industry.

Ultimately, the question of what skills a civil engineer needs to contribute immediately to the profession is imperfect. No matter how well-prepared an engineer leaves college, a first job will always be an education unto itself. Training and re-training are inevitable parts of career development.

And that’s OK, Notte said.

“Getting that degree has proven that you know how to learn; now we’re going to teach you how to apply all those things. And your first year is a fire hose without a doubt,” Notte said. “And it may extend longer.

“And it's OK. As an entry-level professional, you're going to go through this crazy little roller coaster ride, if you will, in that first year or two as you transition your life out of what you’ve known for the first 22 years and into the next 45 years. It’s OK to talk about it, it really is.

“I believe open dialogue on that front is important. I feel we lose individuals, whether it’s from one company to another or even out of the entire industry because they start a career and have visions of what they think it’s going to be; but they don’t know because they’ve never done it before. Then they make decisions based on limited data sets and say, ‘Maybe I’m not at the right company, or maybe I’m not in the right career, because this seems weird or isn’t what I expected.’

“It’s OK. Let’s talk about it. Let’s try and work through those emotions and what’s going on. I really think that’s an important aspect for entry-level engineers to hear and be reassured that they’re not alone if they are feeling that way.

“It’s always good to have the conversation. Success comes from people. This is a people industry. Yes, we do a lot of technical stuff, but we work with people.”