Top 3 Skills For Successful Civil Engineers

It’s more than technical ability alone.

When you first start out in the civil engineering field, your focus is completely on building your technical knowledge. And so it should be. However, if you want to progress in your career, you’ll need to develop other skills.

Why is technical ability not enough? I’ve often heard colleagues speaking about the technically-strong engineers with an almost reverent tone, and a healthy dose of respect. However, you will also come across these same colleagues either as engineers 20 years later, or as stressed-out middle managers who have lost their god-like status amongst their peers.

This is because — and it hurts to admit this — engineering companies are not run by engineers. You may have (or aspire to) more post-nominals than the length of your name, but the fact is: engineers are not the top of the hierarchy where you work. Nor will that change any time soon.

If you want to stay as an engineer for the whole of your career, that’s great. We need good engineers, and we need them to teach the next generation. Stop reading here, and start doing some structural calculations.

However, if you want to progress beyond the inevitable ceiling that you will eventually hit, you need to develop in other areas. For the purpose of this article, we will assume that you are already technically strong in your area of expertise — after all, a successful engineer is still an engineer.

Learn to write well

Traditionally, us technically-minded folk are not the best writers, and it shows. Whilst this isn’t true for everyone, I see poorly written reports, specifications, and forms often enough to make this generalisation.

This is where you can truly stand out from your colleagues. Re-take your GCSE English course, get a tutor, do an online tutorial with, or just write daily and get a friend to proofread it for you. Even becoming an avid reader will help you develop your sentence structure and vocabulary. Whatever works for you, but practise. The more you write, the better you will get, and it will soon show in your work.

Why does this matter? Engineers do the work, but they don’t win the work. Bid writers win the work. Good writers win awards for their company. An engineer who can write well makes their company look and sound professional, with the added benefit of actually knowing what they are writing about.

Develop people management skills

You should already have a good grounding in working in a team, because as we know, no project is ever done by just one person. Try to extend that to learning how to motivate and influence others.

To progress beyond engineering, you’ll need to learn how to get others to commit to a goal — and deliver. To do this, you’ll need to assemble the right team, get their buy-in, assign tasks based on each individual’s strengths, and manage them in a way that they respond to — all while allowing everyone a chance to develop their skills and keeping everyone motivated and focussed on the project goals.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

People management is one of the hardest things to do, and there isn’t a guide you can follow to get the best results — or even the same results — every time. Every person is different, with different strengths, goals, and motivating factors, so you will often have to adapt your style to suit your team members.

Think about how you like to be managed, and try to identify others who respond well to this style. Also, take note of how other managers in your organisation get things done. Is it effective, or not? Why? You can learn something even from poor management techniques — learning what doesn’t work may save you some trouble in the future.

Learn the commercial and financial side of the business

And while you are at it, learn what the difference is between commercial and financial teams. If you don’t work in that area, it is easy to lump everything into “commercial” and forget about it until you need to chase a payment.

Generally speaking, ‘commercial’ refers to the contractual and legal side of the business — so the contract your project works to, sub-contractor terms, etc. ‘Financial’, on the other hand, are the accountants who deal with the money and payments. There is of course some cross over between the two, but this will help you distinguish who has responsibility for what.

Showing an interest in the contractual terms that you are working to, or how project costs are built up, is a good indication to your manager that you have the potential to develop beyond design work.

Final Thoughts

While there are a whole range of skills that you’ll need to develop to progress your career beyond design, these three are probably the most important. Even if you choose to focus on just one of these areas, you will already be ahead of most of your colleagues.