What is Construction Engineering?

What is construction engineering? Construction engineers plan and manage the execution of designs for infrastructure projects.

The infrastructure projects include the following types of construction work:

  • Roads
  • Tunnels
  • Buildings
  • Bridges
  • Dams
  • Utilities
  • Railroads

It goes without saying, society would crumble without these projects. This reinforces the importance of having construction engineers. Because it’s construction engineers who lead the chaos we call construction projects. They’re the glue that helps keep a project on the rails.

I know firsthand, as I’ve been a part of many construction projects. The work is challenging and unforgiving, but at the very same time, highly rewarding. To better explain this dichotomy, I’ll answer the following two questions in detail:

  • What’s the difference between construction engineering and civil engineering?
  • What are the realities of construction engineering work?

What’s the difference between construction engineering and civil engineering?

construction site

Construction engineering is often referred to as construction management. Regardless of the title, the line of work falls under the civil engineering umbrella.

In fact, in many universities, construction engineering is a specialty under civil engineering. But, you can also pursue a construction management degree outside of engineering. In these instances, I recommend pursuing construction management branched under an engineering degree. Because you’ll have greater flexibility, and you can still become a construction manager. A win-win!

But I digress.

It’s difficult to place a civil engineer into a single descriptive bucket. The profession is just too broad and many overlaps exist from one specialty to the next. In general, though, civil engineers do the following types of work:

  • Research, outline, and plan projects
  • Design projects
  • Implement and supervise construction
  • Project management

You can see how the profession is very broad. But, we can get away with separating out civil engineers who do design work from those who work in the field.

Using this distinction, design-focused civil engineers primarily do more analytical work. They design projects sprinkled in with some fieldwork. While in construction engineering, the engineers solely focus on construction-related work. They work to execute, bring to life, a completed design.

Thus, construction engineers require a deep understanding of construction processes and methods. This is the only way to successfully supervise contractors and work quality.

In a nutshell, the big difference between the two is the amount of fieldwork completed. Not to forget to mention, in the field you’re more times than not under the blazing sun kicking up dirt. Your counterpart though sits in an air-conditioned office staying sweat-free.

Important Note: some civil engineers after they complete a design, shift to fieldwork. Thus, they get a healthy dose of both design and construction work experience. 

What are the realities of construction engineering work?

excavators building site

Construction work is no cakewalk. In fact, it’s a completely different animal than design work. But, if you’re built for this type of work, it can be hugely satisfying.

I’m going to go over 8 realities of construction work, that’ll for the most part ring true. This will give you a better idea of what to expect on average in the industry.

#1 Pay and work hours

The pay is typically higher on paper compared to design-focused civil engineering positions. BUT, there’s no free lunch.

You’ll work A LOT of hours. I’m talking about working from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM without any overtime pay. So if you do the math, the increase in pay would be a wash given the long hours. Then come a bad week, you may work weekends too.

Without a doubt, it’s a big personal decision to work in construction. Because your personal life will take a hit. I know many people in the industry who have marriage and alcohol problems due to the nature of the job.

Now, if you can stick to the grind long enough and get promoted, you can make great money. The money isn’t generational wealth. But, it’s more than what most design-focused civil engineers make.

#2 Travel and relocation

You may need to move out of your home city for months on end. I’ve even seen colleagues pick up and relocate to a new state for two-plus years. Once you have seniority though, you’ll have more stability in where you choose to work.

In other instances, you may have a 2-hour commute each way in the middle of nowhere.

In short, you clearly don’t have much input on where you work. It’s only once a project contract becomes finalized, will you know where your home is. This uncertainty can become a mental drain, and uprooting yourself is a big sacrifice.

On the flip side, a civil engineer may stay in one location their entire career. So the lifestyle of the two lines of work differs greatly.

#3 High-stress environment

The work is frantic and can quickly turn into a circus. And I’m not even exaggerating one bit.

Plus, you shoulder A LOT of responsibility. Your head is on the chopping block for any issues that come up. This includes problems you weren’t directly even involved in. It’s not uncommon for fingers to point every which way too, playing the blame game.

I’ve never been a part of a large construction project where everything went smoothly. Problems ALWAYS happen, and when it rains it pours. So, you always need to be ready to solve problems fast. And I mean fast.

You’ll have a lot of pressure on you to quickly get work done and find solutions while staying within budget. Because each small delay will push your project schedule back and lead to money down the drain.

Not surprisingly, the construction industry lives and dies on deadlines. To further highlight this, you’ll find the following type of language in every contract:

“It is agreed by the parties to the Contract that time is of the essence; and that in case all the work is not completed before or upon the expiration of the time limit as set in the Bid, Contract and/or Progress Schedule as designated by the City (generally the date of final completion), or as revised by any time extensions that may have been granted, damage will be sustained by the City; and that it may be impracticable to determine the actual amount of damage by reason of such delay; and it is, therefore, agreed that the Contractor shall pay to the City as damages the amount of $1,000 liquidated damages amount per day for each and every day’s delay in finishing the work in excess of the number of days specified.”

#4 Personality traits

Relationships are king in construction!

Thus, you need to have the right fitting personality to succeed. This means you can’t be a pushover or too kind. Otherwise, people will quickly take advantage and walk all over you.

I find the best construction engineers are stern and well-respected. In return, you can best deal with all the following groups of people when discussions get heated:

  • Suppliers
  • Superintendents
  • Contractors / laborers
  • Executives
  • City representatives

If you can’t get along with a wide assortment of people though, your stress levels can skyrocket. Imagine first thing in the morning at 6:00 AM, some asshole blasts away at you over the phone.

#5 Work environment in the office and field

You’re not going to sit in an AC-cooled office all day long. In fact, a lot of the time, you’ll need to walk the field looking over construction. This means getting your hands dirty and breaking a sweat.

BUT, I’d still classify the work as an office job to some degree. Because you’ll spend a lot of time doing the following:

  • Sitting in long meetings and leading drawn-out conference calls
  • Sending emails and making calls throughout the day
  • Managing project schedules and budgets at your computer

Now, I’m not exaggerating when I say in a single day you can get upwards of 100 texts and calls. Everyone will come to you for guidance, approvals, and shit-talking. At the same time, this environment becomes a great opportunity for you to showcase your leadership skills.

#6 Amount of paperwork

Even on a construction site, you can’t avoid paperwork. In fact, paperwork will follow you around every corner. The amount of paperwork doubles with publicly funded projects too.

It’s because you’re dealing with many moving expensive parts that need documentation. For example, you better have a trail of paperwork in why you chose a different $1,000,000 equipment versus what’s specified.

Covering your ass is a HUGE part of the work. Because when shit hits the fan, most people will try to change the narrative over past decisions. So, you need to be able to provide a record of what actually transpired.

#7 Required level of knowledge 

You need to be book smart and have knowledge of various trades if you want to maximize your success. I’m talking about having knowledge of various disciplines of engineering. The best construction engineers I know, have a solid base in the following subjects:

  • Geotech
  • Structures
  • Foundations
  • Concrete
  • Earthwork
  • Electrical

I can go on and on with many other subjects too. The point is, you need to stay sharp in many opposing fields of knowledge. And being a civil engineer isn’t an excuse to not know about other disciplines of work.

The great thing is, this exposure to a variety of subjects will keep your work interesting. Plus, you’ll constantly be learning.

#8 Career development

The career development benefits are HUGE. Because hands-on work as an engineer will make you a so much better designer. It’s why I believe real-world experience is much more important than formal education.

I’d go as far as to say field experience and knowledge are building blocks for every designer. Fieldwork makes you appreciate and helps you better understand design work.

As a result, you’ll gain a leg up in the corporate world, and become a more awesome engineer. I wholeheartedly believe this.

So if given the opportunity, step outside of your comfort zone and work in construction. Even if it’s just for 1-year. You’ll learn so much and I guarantee your design skills will quickly level up.

But be careful. You may fall in love with construction work. Because the work can be deceivingly and extremely satisfying. It’s addicting to see a project you’re leading come to life. Plus, you may have an aha moment and realize how boring 24/7 office life is in comparison.

“What is construction engineering?” wrap up

Construction engineering is a big part of engineering. It’s the conduit that connects the design world to the real world.

I compare it to being a composer of a symphony. You need to constantly coordinate many moving parts together.  You make sure everything and everyone shows up on time day after day.

Not surprisingly, the profession has plenty of challenges. At the same time though, it’s a treasure trove of skills you can’t pick up in any book or office. I compare it to a cheat code in engineering, where you can instantly level yourself up.

To top it off, the construction industry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Yes, I know, we’re transitioning into a digital age. But for the foreseeable future, we still live in the physical world. So it’s no mystery, the profession will be fairly stable moving into the future.

What are your thoughts on the construction engineering field? What do you foresee in the construction engineering industry in the future?

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