Reframing Engineering

The Importance of Project Management

Structural engineers take classes in calculus, physics, statics, mechanics, structural analysis, and structural design during their undergraduate years. In graduate school, they take courses in structural dynamics, earthquake engineering, advanced structural analysis, and advanced structural design. In theory, with this knowledge, the newly minted graduates are ready to make the transition from academia to the realities of working in an engineering firm.

However, a few years after graduation, the question usually arises, “How does my firm make money?” Admittedly, this seems like a silly question. But, up until this point, it is a question that the typical structural engineer was never taught, exposed to, or even asked to think about. And then one day, bang! This structural engineer is spending his or her days interfacing with clients, managing personnel and project budgets, writing proposals, and reviewing invoices, often during the evening after everyone else has gone home. How did this transition occur?

Conversations among project managers and principals of engineering firms rarely center on problems with code provisions, solving complex equations, or performing detailed design work. This should not be a surprise – structural engineers have years of training in these complex technical tasks, but they do not use this knowledge any longer. Usually, upper management’s chief concerns include developing new client relationships and maintaining existing relationships. So if the leaders of most structural engineering firms believe that relationships are a vital component of their firm’s future success, why are structural engineers not trained in how to foster and maintain relationships? The same could be asked about other non-technical aspects of an engineering business such as managing risk, reading contracts, managing accounts receivable, forecasting workload, and controlling project budgets.

Responsibilities and job titles vary from firm to firm depending on the organizational structure, market sector, and other factors. The non-technical aspects of running a project typically fall to the Project Manager. In many cases, the Project Manager role is the “Peter Principle” in action – the most technically adept engineers are “promoted” to project manager where they are asked to set aside their technical proficiencies and are thrust into a new role for which they are largely untrained. Moreover, to compound this problematic situation, how are our talented engineers trained in the soft skills of management? They learn by observation and from the habits and practices (good and bad) of the previous generation of engineer-turned-project managers. And thus, the cycle continues.

A parallel and opposite scenario is also running at the same time. Engineers who cannot master advanced technical concepts are considered underperformers and are not given the opportunity to try their hand at project management. If given a chance, they might have an affinity for that role because of the skills they naturally have but which they have never been asked to employ.

So, how does the structural engineering profession break this pattern? How can staff members (technically and non-technically skilled) be encouraged to develop managerial soft-skills that successful project managers need so that those best suited for management careers are identified?

The profession’s architecture counterparts have it right. The recently updated Architect Registration Examination (ARE) 5.0 includes the following modules:

Practice Management (PcM) focuses on the management of an architectural practice, including professional ethics, fiduciary responsibilities, and the regulations governing the practice of architecture. The professional should be able to demonstrate an understanding of and abilities in business structure, business development, and asset development and protection.

Project Management (PjM) focuses on the management of architectural projects, including organizing principles, contract management, and consultant management. The professional should be able to demonstrate an understanding of and abilities in quality control, project team configuration, and project scheduling.

Courses in these professional practice skills are also required in most, if not all, Bachelor of Architecture curricula. As a result, architects are exposed to both sides of their field early in their careers, and they can decide where their passion and skills lie and where they can be most successful. The structural engineering profession needs to find a way to give young engineers the same exposure to business practicum.

Yes, some universities are starting to pick up the slack with programs in Engineering Management. Maybe this is a start, but it is likely that few students realize the opportunities these programs offer. They just don’t yet understand or appreciate the importance of the business of engineering. No one has told them how their future firms make money.

The CASE Toolkit Committee is currently developing Tool 5-5, Project Management Training Guide, which will be available soon. Tool 5-5 is a template curriculum of 24 topics that should be taught to budding Project Managers, and how they relate to eight overarching corporate goals: Smooth Project Execution, Reputation, Profitability, Marketing, Employee Retention and Growth, Firm Growth, Risk Management, and Contributions to the Profession.  The 24 topics include both financial and technical management skills and are applied chronologically through the life of a sample project, from Business Development and Project Selection Go/No Go Decisions to Archiving and the Promotion of Successful Projects.▪

About the author  ⁄ Anthony H. LoCicero III, P.E., LEED AP

Anthony H. LoCicero III is a Project Manager at Burns Engineering in their Philadelphia, PA and New York, NY offices. He serves as a member of the CASE Toolkit Committee. He can be reached at alocicero@burns-group.com.

Comments posted to STRUCTURE website do not constitute endorsement by NCSEA, CASE, SEI, C3 Ink, or the Editorial Board.

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