Engineering and beyond: key roles in engineering firms

Engineers are not alone in their work – explore the vital contributions made by non-engineers in the world's biggest engineering firms.
Ryan Matthews
Team GradAustralia
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In our article, ‘Which engineering specialisation is right for me?’ we explored the various specialisations available to engineering graduates within the field of engineering. However, many graduates go on to work in large firms that are supported by professionals from a range of other backgrounds (though some may have studied engineering before changing direction). Read on to learn more about the vital contributions made by non-engineers in the world’s biggest engineering firms.

Key roles within an engineering firm

CAD operator

CAD operators, also known as drafters, are experts in the use of computer-assisted drawing (CAD) programs, such as AutoCAD, Rhinoceros 3D, or TurboCAD. They are responsible for producing the drawings and blueprints that guide all engineering projects, from the manufacturing of speciality parts to the construction of new buildings. Within engineering firms, they work closely with engineers to understand what’s being built or created, before producing schemata with comprehensive guidelines and technical details. Given the complexity of the objects they are rendering, many CAD operators specialise in categories that correspond to subfields of engineering. For example, a CAD operator in a civil engineering firm will be expected to be familiar with building codes, client specifications, and other issues in order to produce a technical drawing that is legal and practicable.

Construction manager

Once a project is out of the design and engineering stages – that is, once a building is set to be built – construction managers take over. Generally, a construction manager will take care of a whole project, or a significant portion of a large project (such as the creation of a new sports stadium). It’s their job to oversee the day-to-day activities of a building site and ensure that new developments are constructed on demand and to a budget.

A construction manager’s responsibilities include creating timelines and budgets; hiring and managing site staff; advising on the purchase of necessary materials and equipment; writing reports to keep stakeholders abreast of any key developments with the projects; and ensuring the workplace adheres to occupational health and safety rules. They are often based in a company’s central office, but spend much of their week visiting sites and clients. A key aspect of their role involves estimating the costs and likely timeframes of new projects, a process that involves consulting with engineers, architects, surveyors, and other professionals.

Engineering manager

Engineering managers coordinate the efforts of various other professionals to ensure they all work together towards the achievement of common goals. Doing this involves the application of management principles to the practice of engineering. Consequently, most engineering managers are not only qualified engineers, but also well-versed in business skills such as finance, human resources, accounting, project management, and quality control. It is not unusual for professionals in this role to possess a Master of Engineering Management.

Common tasks for engineering managers include establishing project budgets and deadlines; advising junior engineers and project managers in their teams; working with government agencies, lawyers, and regulators to ensure projects meet all legal requirements; introducing new management strategies to optimise efficiency and productivity; liaising with stakeholders; and reporting to superiors and colleagues within the firm (such as partners and construction managers).

Partner

For those who aspire to reaching the top of an engineering firm’s hierarchy, you can’t aim much higher than partnership. As in law firms, partners form the core executive of an engineering firm, and help to make the big decisions: which projects to pursue, who to hire, where to set up new operations, and so on. Importantly, partners assume a degree of liability when providing such leadership – each partner must purchase equity in the firm, which means that their pay is dictated by the firm’s overall performance and not guaranteed by a salary.

Partnerships are competitive, and acquiring one is often the peak of an engineering professional’s career. Successful applicants boast extensive experience, can demonstrate success in winning new business for the firm, and possess the business and interpersonal skills required to provide decisive leadership. While partnership can be rewarding and lucrative, there’s no doubt that partners work hard for the money and prestige – long hours are standard, travel is a given, and perseverance is a must.

Patent attorney

A patent attorney is a specialised legal professional who is qualified to advise clients on how to protect their intellectual property (IP) by applying for or defending patents. A legal background is advisable but not obligatory. Instead, what counts most is a strong understanding of technical concepts and the ability to differentiate between different technological innovations. This allows successful patent attorneys to identify the unique aspects of their clients’ innovations, and ensure their intellectual property isn’t infringed upon by competitors.

As an engineering graduate, your ability to grasp high-level technical and mechanical concepts will stand you in good stead if you decide to pursue a career in intellectual property. You might find yourself working for a private firm, or perhaps in a larger organisation’s in-house patent department. Either way, it’s stimulating and very well remunerated work. In addition to a good degree and broad-based interest in engineering, excellent communication skills are essential, particularly written skills. You also need to be comfortable dealing with demanding clients, working to tight deadlines and handling several projects at once.

Project manager

Project managers are found in many industries outside of engineering. Indeed, their skills are indispensable whenever an organisation wishes to complete a project that is constrained by scope (what the project aims to accomplish), time (how long the project will run for), budget (how much the project will cost), and quality.

Within firms, project managers work alongside engineers and engineering managers, focusing on five main steps: initiation, during which the scope of a project is defined, budgets are produced, and staffing availability is considered; planning, which involves setting goals, implementing deadlines, and developing a project schedule; executing, which involves coordinating a project’s actual commencement; monitoring, which requires the project manager to monitor the project’s progress and make any corrections or adjustments to account for unexpected challenges; and closing, which involves reviewing a completed project and writing reports with a view to applying new insights to future endeavours.

To succeed as a project manager, you’ll need to be organised and level-headed – this is a high-pressure job, and deadlines are never far away. Fortunately, your ability to meet them is vital to the completion of projects of which you can be justifiably proud.

Quality assurance manager

As citizens, we generally expect that the buildings we enter, the bridges we traverse, and the public works upon which we rely possess enough structural integrity not to collapse at an inopportune moment. But on a project that might involve tens, hundreds, or even thousands of individual workers, how can firms rest assured that everybody is meeting the same expectations of quality and rigour? This, broadly, is the responsibility of quality assurance managers, who work to develop and enforce policies designed to meet acceptable standards for health, safety, and performance, whether they’re designing a theatre or a new automobile.

Quality assurance managers achieve their goal in a variety of ways. Their day-to-day responsibilities include determining in-house quality procedures, standards, and specifications (often expressed through policies they draft themselves); coordinating training for firm employees, especially to familiarise them with quality expectations; and ensuring compliance with quality standards by auditing projects, reviewing staff procedures, and working closely with engineers, project managers, and other colleagues.

Surveyor

Surveyors perform a vital role by providing engineers, architects, and other professionals with information about the geography of a proposed building site. Using a ‘total station theodolite’ – the tripodal device you may have seen in use around construction sites – as well as tools for electronic distance measurement and complex modelling software, surveyors are able to determine the true ‘lay of the land’. Their 3D models are used to verify the location of new developments, stake out reference points, and account for the possible influence of existing infrastructure and obstacles. Surveyors may focus on the challenges of specific environments, which has led to the recognition of specialty areas such as construction surveying, hydrographic surveying and mining surveying.

As you can see, it is possible to work in the engineering industry without an engineering degree – engineering firms offer a wide variety of roles. To search for graduate roles, check out our job search page at GradAustralia.