A Day in the Life of an Engineer

A Day in the Life of an Engineer


Describe the duties and responsibilities of someone working in engineering. 

Depending on what area you work in, the duties and responsibilities for someone working in engineering vary profoundly. I’ll speak about the private consulting world, since I have the most experience here. As a private civil consultant, your day-to-day activities change throughout the year and from project to project.

To begin, an engineer will work together with a project owner to incorporate design characteristics that the owner wants for their project, while still making it possible to construct and within the budget. This part of the project is considered scoping.

Next, the engineer will work with his or her design team to put the idea onto paper. Part of this phase involves design calculation. For example, an engineer will use software to correctly size a storm water pond used to temporarily hold water on site, so you don’t flood the neighbor’s place (or your client’s too). They will also calculate slopes for pavements, sidewalks, and lawn space. The engineer’s job is to ensure project compliance with various agencies of authority in the project area. This is the part of the project that involves a lot of coffee, time behind a computer screen… and coffee. I’ve highlighted a few items, but in reality, an engineer in charge of design needs to account for a massive amount of variables and make sure the project is constructible and will last for the appropriate design life. The design phase is where the rubber really meets the road in terms of the project taking life.

Once the design is complete, I will put together the specifications for the project. This can be very tedious. It’s a document that often consists of hundreds of pages of technical writing that is used by the contractor and engineer to identify design details, identify testing rates, and settle disputes. Think of the specifications as a set of game rules. It is a legally binding document that tells the contractor how to play within the boundaries and what will happen if those boundaries get crossed.

Once the plans and specs are complete, you, the engineer, have effectively created a cookbook with a recipe for the contractor to follow. At this point, you are ready to advertise! Plans get published in the paper and through bidding outlets for contractors to bid on them. Typically, the project will eventually be awarded to the lowest bidder.

Once you have a contractor, construction begins and you watch your project take life in the form of concrete, paint, bituminous, culverts, and so on. I’m a nerd so I like this stuff but really, even non-nerds would be impressed with a finished civil design project. Especially once the grass is mowed and the design begins to be used.

This is a brief synopsis of what a consultant does, but there are countless items that happen behind the scenes of the project that I didn’t mention.

What do your day to day tasks look like when it comes to working on projects for clients? 

My day to day tasks include phone calls with clients, designing aspects of a project, delegating work to others to effectively distribute the workload, and make the project run as efficiently as possible. Other duties include watching project budgets to ensure profitability, visiting project sites, and various other items.

How important are interpersonal skills when working in the engineering field? 

Interpersonal skills are extremely important in this field. Engineers tend to get a hard time for being nerdy and introverted, but I’ve found that I have to be anything but introverted in this field. I’m constantly speaking with new people, shaking hands, speaking in front of groups, and making decisions within a group setting. There are many instances where conferences calls are going on with multiple stakeholders and you need to be the information catalyst between everyone involved.

As an engineer you need to ensure owner, design team, and contractor expectations are clearly communicated. All in all, interpersonal skills are not only nice to have in this field, they are must-haves.

What is your favorite type of task or project to work with? 

My favorite task is the construction phase. There is a certain mystical triumph that comes with watching a project physically come to life. Paper plan sets are just that -- paper plan sets. Who doesn’t want to go ride a bike on the new asphalt trail you just built??

The construction is a metaphorical trophy for the diligence, the critical thinking, the reviews, the math, the mistakes, the corrections, the teamwork, the hours, the communication, the coordination, the discussions, and the “we did it!”.

I’m a conservationist and outdoor enthusiast at heart. For me, if I can help design and build a facility that will improve our environment for people, wildlife, or just the environment itself, I get so much more out of it.


Matt Upgren, EIT, Civil Engineer 

Karvakko Engineering and RRA have officially merged into one firm--Karvakko. We’re more than just engineering.

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