Engineers are professional problem solvers: their rigorous academic training prepares them to take advantage of new technologies, methods, and materials to help various organisations move from the abstract (for example, a product idea or an architectural design) to the tangible (for example, a consumer good or a finished home). Almost every good or service we enjoy involves, directly or indirectly, the contributions of an engineer: they’re responsible for the plastics and metals used in your electronic devices, the structural integrity of your local shopping mall, the functioning of your favourite websites, and more.
However, while engineering skills and expertise are indispensable to businesses of all descriptions, not every business can justify hiring an engineer full-time. Often, they may only require an engineer to help them overcome a discrete challenge, such as eliminating inefficiency in their manufacturing processes, minimising the environmental impact of their construction activities, or deciding which product design to pursue.
That’s where engineering consultants come in. These consultants possess qualifications in various branches of engineering, including aeronautical, civil, electrical, environmental, mechanical, and structural engineering. While directly employed by a consultancy firm, they complete contracts for various other businesses, helping them to accomplish specific goals. When their job is done, they move on to the next project, which may be in a completely different industry. In short, if you’re an engineering student who longs for a varied, intellectually challenging, and well-compensated career, then engineering consulting may just be the thing for you.
Engineering consulting firms fall within the architectural, engineering, and technical services industry, which grew at a rate of 3.9 per cent per year between 2014 and 2019, thanks in large part to increasing demand from public and private clients. Undoubtedly, this demand has been bolstered by large investments in public infrastructure, with New Zealand expected to invest $129 billion in infrastructure over the coming decade.
As such, job prospects for engineering consultants are very good, with successful employment leading to stimulating work and generous remuneration. In its 2019 Remuneration Survey, Engineering New Zealand reported that the median base salary for new graduates (across all fields of engineering, including engineering) was between $50,000 and $60,000, with this growing to almost $70,000 with three years of experience. The median base salary for all full-time engineers was $90,700.
Obviously, the most important thing you’ll need for a career as an engineering consultant is an engineering degree. However, in addition to relying on top-notch engineering skills, engineering consultants face a specific set of professional challenges: they must be adept at creating new relationships, skilled at imparting technical ideas to colleagues with non-technical backgrounds, and possessed of unimpeachable professional integrity. Graduate employers will, therefore, look for candidates who possess both strong academic credentials and a personable demeanour that’s well-suited to establishing productive relationships in business environments.
Generally, major engineering consultancy firms are aggressive recruiters of talented graduates, with a strong presence at university careers fairs and graduate-focused websites like GradNewZealand. Major employers such as Northrop, Downer, and Worley operate structured graduate development programs that last for one to two years, with applications generally opening in February or March.
Typically, the recruitment process includes an online application, a video interview (for shortlisted candidates), participation in activities at an assessment centre, and a final face-to-face interview. Some employers have also begun using ‘gamified’ psychometric tests that candidates can complete online. From start to finish, the recruitment process may take up to five months.
As an engineering consultant, you can expect to work inside various businesses, from large, multinational organisations to smaller, local businesses. The industries too may change: you could be working for a telecommunications provider one week, and a construction company the week after. What does all this mean? To succeed, you must possess the adaptability required to take your skills and use them to confront a range of problems, while working with new teams in new environments.
It’s important to remember that organisations hire engineering consultants to tackle the problems they’ve been unable to overcome independently. As such, they’ll be relying not only on your engineering skills but also on your ability to communicate the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the solution you propose. Often, this will mean helping non-technical audiences understand your approach, so strong communication skills are a must.
Few companies can afford to waste money on hiring engineering consultants to solve easy problems. Instead, they bring in extra help when the challenge they face is particularly hard or complex. Accordingly, you must be prepared to deal with tricky tasks, many of which will require you to think creatively, experiment with different approaches, and exhibit a high degree of perseverance.