Is This The Profession for You?
What is Consulting Engineering? Learn about the exciting field of consulting engineering and how to determine if this is the right career choice for you. Discover step-by-step how to become a licensed professional engineer including educational requirements, experience and examinations. Find out the benefits & drawbacks of consulting engineering as well as the advantages & disadvantages of owning your own practice.
WHAT IS AN ENGINEER?
An Engineer is: “a person who has scientific training and who designs and builds complicated products, machines, systems, or structures”.
Those in high school that are interested in Engineering should be strong in science and mathematics, and should try to take advanced or College Prep Courses that emphasize these fields.
When selecting a college for consulting engineering, make sure that it is “Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology-Engineering Accreditation Commission”, (ABET-EAC) accredited. Surprisingly, some good colleges are not.
WHAT IS CONSULTING ENGINEERING?“
Consulting engineers are individuals who, because of training in one or more engineering specialties and are licensed professional engineers in private practice. They serve private and public clients in ways ranging from brief consultations to complete design and coordination of projects. They are often the technical liaison between architects, process specialists, contractors, suppliers and the client. A consulting engineer can provide general consultation, feasibility reports, design, cost estimates, rate studies, project development, patent assistance and preparation of environmental impact statements.”
Those who offer their services to the public as an engineer are required to be licensed as a “Registered Professional Engineer”. In each state, registration is governed by a “Board of Registration of Professional Engineers”, who review/approve qualifications; administer tests; and oversee practices. Each state’s board has its own governing rules, but the same national tests are administered in each state. Basically the requirements are as follows:
Be a graduate of an ABET-EAC accredited engineering program of four (4) years or more.
Pass an eight (8) hour written examination “Fundamentals in Engineering” (FE) in the fundamentals of engineering.
A minimum of four (4) years of experience in engineering work, working under the supervision of a Professional Engineer.
Pass an eight (8) hour written examination “Professional Engineer” (PE) in the principles and practice of engineering.
Some boards modify these requirements, usually based on experience. Most allow candidates to take the “fundamentals” exam in their senior year of college, while the calculus, chemistry, etc. are still relatively fresh in their memory.
To qualify to take the PE exam, it is important that there is a Professional Engineer at your place of employment who is willing to “certify” that your experience in engineering work was “of a grade and character which indicates that you may be competent to practice engineering”.
Your daily work is typically restricted to a very small segment of your specialty. The PE exam, however, is very broad. Therefore, you must prepare yourself for a range of questions beyond your actual work experience. After I passed the PE exam, I was registered as a Professional Engineer which meant that I could certify (attach my PE Seal/Stamp) to any type of engineering documents, as long as I was willing to show competence in that area of engineering. In recent years, engineers are registered in one or more standard engineering specialties and their practice is limited to that area of work.
Most states require that each entity that practices or offers to practice engineering must hold a current Certificate of Authorization. Make sure that your firm (whether sole proprietorship, corporation, partnership or LLC) has a current COA.
WHAT DOES A CONSULTING ENGINEER TYPICALLY DO?
Architects and facility owners hire engineers to draw system plans and write specifications for their buildings; including, (but not limited to), electrical, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, plumbing), fire protection, structural, and civil. Electrical systems, (for example), include: utilities serving the building (power, telephone, cable TV & fire alarm); lighting; power distribution; fire alarm systems; telephone distribution; cable TV distribution; and any other electrical system that the particular building might require. The consulting engineer is responsible for designing within the architect’s/owner’s budget limitations; and coordinating with the requirements of utility companies and inspection authorities. At the end of the design phase the consultant prepares a specification document, detailing the material requirements and system functions. During bidding he attends pre-bid meetings, clarifies issues for his trade, and prepares addenda to be issue to inform bidders of changes in the requirements. After a contract is awarded, the consultant reviews/approves shop drawings detailing all equipment that the contractor proposes. During the construction phase he visits the job site to record progress and clarifies the contract documents. At the completion of the construction phase he prepares a “punch-list” detailing corrections to the work, if needed.
DO YOU WANT TO BE A “CONSULTING ENGINEER”?
- Interesting Work – Each project is unique with specific requirements, existing conditions, options and cost constraints.
- Participation in all aspects – You create (your engineering specialty) of a project, from the study through design, approvals, bidding, shop drawings, clarifications, construction observations, and the final “punch list”. You actually see the project go from a blank sheet of paper to a constructed, one of a kind project that you can see and touch.
- Not stuck behind a desk – Some of your day will be made up of meetings with clients, vendors, colleagues, utility companies, and contractors and others; field investigation; and job site observations.
- You are in an adversarial position – Your oversight of a project is to make sure that the owner gets the equivalent of what you specified. The contractor typically wants you to accept an inferior product; your client expects you to protect the building owner’s interest and the owner often wants better than what you specified.
- The Construction Industry is “cyclical” – If you’re good at your job, you will usually be working. But, if a recession it too deep or lasts too long, you may find yourself unemployed.
- Dead-line Pressure – Deadlines are constantly changing and often there are multiple projects pressing for your for attention. Overtime and sorting-out the top priorities can be stressful.
- Profitably Pressure – Everyone in business is driven by a profit motive; even consulting engineering firms. No matter how good that you are at your job, if you can’t make a profit for the company, you will not last.
- Too Much Work – Consulting engineering firms are reluctant to turn-down projects because they can never tell when current projects will be delayed and they may have spent a year or more waiting for a project that suddenly gets the go-ahead. That creates more stress for you.
- Too Little Work – Conversely too little work is even more stressful; it almost never seems like the work load is steady.
- You’re the “bad guy” – During construction, the owner sees you occasionally, but usually sees the contractor every day and friendships are formed. Before you know it, in protecting the owner’s interest, you are being too hard on his friend.
Carefully mull over the pros & cons of “owning” your own consulting engineering practice:
Benefits: Making all of the final decisions; never being laid-off; keeping all of the profits; and being able to sell a valuable asset upon retirement.
Drawbacks: Personal & family sacrifices; difficulty of dealing with employees; and acceptance of any losses.