How to Become a Project Engineer


On a construction job site, every role is important, including the project engineer (PE). But PEs are often viewed as almost having an administrative role, when in fact the PE has the vital role of contributing to the well-being and flow of workers across the site.

Because their role can be so heavily administrative, a project engineer may also benefit from taking time to get some experience as a field engineer. Both types of engineers focus on quality, although the PE is focused more on the people and the flow of work.

Rather than focusing only on the RFI and subcontractor pay applications, the project engineer helps create the environment in which work flow and quality are established, from start to finish. Schroeder recommends, “Plan it first, build it right, finish as you go. Plan, build, finish … It’s not the tools. It’s the process.”

Project engineers enable everything.

As Schroeder summarized, “A project engineer is in charge of collecting and organizing and making sure that we have flow for the submission and approval of submittals. They do the review. And they work with the architects and designers. What else do project engineers do? RFI. So they're responsible for cataloging and managing and ensuring that we get a timely response to RFIs.”

They also help with subcontractor quantities, with developing schedules, and with owner pay applications. But these are all the tools of the trade. They don’t reflect the process, or the art that accompanies the science, in terms of working with people. 

“The flow of getting that information to the field in that queueing system” is something that Schroeder worries about. “So I just want to anchor us back again, to plan it first, build it right, finish as you go. If I'm a PE, I want to have that mindset and not the tool mindset.” It’s easy to get distracted from the need for a process by all the disconnected tools like RFIs, submittals, subcontractor pay applications, quantities, preparation, and meetings.

For those who want to learn more about the process, he recommends the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, by Jeff and J.J. Sutherland. 

Schroeder is also concerned with how to break down silos and get the information to flow from point A to the worker, wherever they may be in the process. “And that, in my mind, is the role of a project engineer,” said Schroeder: “to synchronize our materials, our manpower, and the information to all hit at the right time, so we can install it on the project site.”

Finding creative ways to communicate.

As Schroeder and Blount have discussed here and earlier, workers on the site may have different learning styles. Where this affects the role of the project engineer is in the preconstruction meeting. What if crews could receive the submittal information — the plans, the specs, everything — in a more visual format?

“Could you imagine every worker being handed an 11x17 laminated color picture, saying this is what we're installing, these are the structures?” It could include a few bullet points from a safety standpoint, a few words about quality. Geography- or regulatory-specific info also could appear.

As Schroeder continued, “And then a picture of what it looks like, a second picture of what it looks like, a third picture, fourth picture, each of those pictures, showing how you install it at the different steps and check it. Could you imagine if all of our workers had that as a visual?” 

This is just one strategy for making critical information feel less hidden, which is so important to the success of the workers and, by association, the project engineer who’s responsible for the spec book. Because different people learn differently, it makes sense to engage different strategies. 

A more visual presentation may also offer opportunities for more clearly sharing lessons learned from prior jobs and for highlighting any job-specific issues. Such PE innovations may also start conversations with your foremen that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Takeaways.

The project engineer focuses on the flow of work across the project site and on the well-being of the workers themselves. 

If there are ways to do more work in less time, Blount noted, “That has an enormous effect on the bottom line. Like takes you from being potentially not profitable to being in the 90th percentile in your industry.” The time for doing things the way they have always been done has passed. More and more people in the Dirt World who recognize there’s a better way are searching it out and getting better.

“If we aren't getting better as contractors, those around us will,” Blount said. “We won’t be here if we don't adapt, we don't change. And what's exciting is — as a project engineer — you can be a catalyst for that.” You can be the one who decides that a new way of doing things is just what your work site needs.

“It starts that catalyst for changing,” said Blount. ”And not only does that make your life better, make that company more profitable, but, as an individual, your career will be exponentially better.”

Want to learn more about project engineering? Meet real life engineer and project manager David Cutler.