Becoming a Project Engineer in Construction: What to Know

by Alexander Fraser

At the heart of any commercial construction project lies the contractor who runs the job. 

Each member has their own set of skills and responsibilities to achieve a successful project. 

One of these team members is a construction project engineer. 

Starting as a project engineer myself, I have been able to work my way up to project manager. 

From scheduling subcontractors to inspecting work for quality control, I’ve done the entire project engineer experience. 

I want this article to act as an in-depth description of the job. That way you can decide if it’s the right career path for you. 

To better understand the project engineer role, I will cover the following topics:

  1. Duties and Responsibilities
  2. Required Skills and Qualifications
  3. Is Project Engineering a Hard Job? 
  4. Is Project Engineering a Good Position? 

First, we need to define the role of a project engineer. 

What is a Project Engineer in Construction? 

A project engineer supports the project manager in the construction planning and project execution. Some of their duties involve scheduling, cost control, subcontractor coordination, implementing safety, and owner communications. This person should possess an engineering or construction management background and display leadership and strong communication skills. 

Duties and Responsibilities of a Project Engineer in Construction

For this article, I analyzed project engineer job applications of the top construction companies in Hawaii.

I did this so you can get a better idea of how construction companies view the role. This information also tells you the key responsibilities of a project engineer. 

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The list of primary responsibilities for a project engineer in construction is below: 

  • Project Planning and Scheduling
  • Budgeting and Cost Control
  • Supervising and Coordinating Subcontractors
  • Quality Assurance and Control
  • Safety Management
  • Communication with Clients and Stakeholders

Project Planning and Scheduling

Construction is all about planning

Poor planning can lead to the failure of a project. 

As a project engineer just starting out, you will work under a project manager (PM). The PM will provide you with guidance and oversight on project planning. 

Eventually, you will be required to plan out things such as:

  • How work will be sequenced
  • Fulfilling pre-requisites before you can proceed with work
  • Acquiring access to a job site so the construction crew can work

These are just a few examples, but most, if not every step of construction will require planning. 

Part of planning involves project scheduling. 

One essential skill you should learn is construction scheduling. 

At the beginning of a project, the general contractor will come out with a construction schedule

This is distributed to the construction team. It provides information on when you can expect to begin work.

You will eventually be required to create a schedule of your own. This helps you track the job progress and if your project is slipping, also when to plan for major activities. 

As the project engineer, you will coordinate these major activities. This can involve crane lifts, electrical outages, or hazmat abatement. 

Since these events can require numerous people to be involved, someone needs to coordinate this. 

That person is the project engineer. 

You will need to contact your subcontractors to be onsite and prepared for the work. The owner needs to be well aware of the activity as well. 

Additionally, anyone impacted by the work will need to be notified. This is important if it affects their daily operations. 

Budgeting and Cost Control for Project Engineers

When I started as a project engineer, I didn’t have much involvement with the budget. This fell on the project manager to oversee.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to be conscious of the project costs. 

You need to look out for any issues with the production of construction. 

If your crew’s production is hindered due to their tools, you should address it. 

Your greatest cost in construction will be labor. If you don’t make the work more efficient the profit margin will suffer. 

As a project engineer, your biggest goal should be improving your profit margin.

This is also what your boss will be looking at as well. 

When you gain more experience as a project engineer, you’ll be required to manage a budget. 

Supervising and Coordinating Subcontractors 

Another project engineer’s responsibility will be project coordination. 

This applies to your team internally and the subcontractors you hire. 

Here are some tasks you can expect to have to coordinate with subcontractors.

  • Dates they need to be onsite to perform their work
  • Providing submittals to be approved by the engineer
  • Procurement of construction materials
  • Performing closeout duties
  • Scope clarification

Since the subcontractor is in a separate office, communication can be difficult.

You really have only two ways to get in touch with them. Email or a phone call. 

If they don’t answer, your next step is to go up the chain to get answers. 

Hiring a subcontractor is not easy, but you won’t have a choice on larger projects. 

This is why general contractors typically issue a subcontract agreement

The contract binds them to specific responsibilities to complete the project. If they can’t meet the requirements there will be legal or financial consequences. 

Subcontractor Supervision on the Construction Site

Once your subcontractor is on the job site, you should verify that their work complies with the plans and specs. To do this, you need to be onsite supervising their work. 

Project supervision involves things such as:

  • Perform quality control checks
  • Completion of the scope of work set by the contract plans

If you don’t watch your subcontractor, they could cut corners to save time and money. 

Cutting corners will only get you in trouble with the general contractor or the local building inspector. 

Make sure your subs get the work done right the first time. If not, call them and report the issue to them for correction. 

Quality Assurance and Control on the Construction Site

Quality control involves inspecting the job site to verify that work conforms to the contract plans and specifications. 

One key responsibility of the project engineer is confirming the work adheres to the plans and specs. To do this, you need to physically see the work in progress matches what is shown in the plans. 

Documenting the construction work is a great way to prove you’re meeting quality control standards. You can document construction by using a daily report

The daily report is also a great way to cover yourself should any issues arise. You can use the report as evidence to back up a claim. 

Now, not only do you need to inspect the work done by your subcontractors. 

This applies to your internal team as well. There are no exceptions to the quality control requirements. 

Quick Note for Quality Control

I analyzed project engineer job applications from the top construction companies in Hawaii. 

About 83% of the companies had listed a quality control duty for the project engineer role. This shows how much the companies value providing quality products to their customer. 

Safety Management for Project Engineers

Safety is pushed hard in the construction industry. 

And for good reason. 

In construction, there are dedicated team members to address all the safety concerns. 

Your company may have a safety manager who is responsible for teaching the field crew about job hazards. When they’re aware of the hazard they conduct the work with caution. 

For federal projects, safety plays a major role in the job. They always require one dedicated safety person onsite at the job during construction. 

The safety personnel oversees all the work from a safety perspective. Their goal is to ensure everyone returns home at the end of the day. 

You might be asking… if they have a safety manager then why do I need to perform safety duties?

Well, a construction site can vary based on the project’s magnitude. The larger jobs may have a large field crew onsite. 

The safety manager is unable to supervise all the staff, so they will rely on the PE to help with enforcement. 

You won’t need to get into creating safety plans or documents. Just make sure that the field crew is working safely. 

If you see someone standing on the top wrung of an A-frame ladder, remind them of the safety risk. 

Another example is if someone is cutting something and aren’t wearing a mask or safety glasses. Stop them and provide the necessary safety gear to continue working. 

Look out for the people on the site. Some guys may grumble, but at the end of the day, you get in trouble if they get hurt. 

Communication with Clients and Stakeholders

So, you already know that communication is vital for the construction team.

But this also applies to client communication and stakeholder communication. 

teamwork.com defines a stakeholder as someone who may be positively or negatively impacted by the project outcome.

This may be your project owner who has financial ties to the job. 

A stakeholder may also be a construction company owner who is heavily vested in the job. Since they must finance part of the work before getting paid, they demand updates on the job. 

Your general communication with clients and stakeholders involves providing updates on the project. 

You will provide updates on the following items:

  • Construction schedule
  • Any unforeseen issues discovered resulting in changes
  • Coordinating site access
  • Parking
  • Material storage

Your primary goal with this responsibility is to relay information to the owner and stakeholders. 

Responsibilities of a Project Engineer in Construction: Quick Reference Image

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Required Skills and Qualifications of a Project Engineer

The project engineer role is an entry-to-mid-level position. 

The hiring manager will typically be looking for someone who has a background in construction engineering or construction management. 

Personally, I have a mechanical engineering degree which helped me land the project engineer job. 

I believe having an engineering degree displays your ability to learn different technical concepts. This is valuable when determining the constructibility of the project contract drawings. 

List of Skills and Qualifications for a Project Engineer

  • Technical Knowledge in Engineering and Construction: Having an engineering or construction management degree shows the hiring manager your capability. Displaying your willingness to learn on top of having a degree will take you far.
  • Strong Leadership and Interpersonal Skills: This role requires that you can work with a team to accomplish a common goal. Do you have what it takes to work with different personalities in construction? If yes, then you shouldn’t have a problem communicating the task at hand for the project. 
  • Effective Communication and Organizational Skills: The ability to pass along information in construction is crucial. As a PE, you’re the middleman between owners, vendors, and the field crew. There’s so much information to consume for a project, if you don’t have good organizational skills, you’ll fall behind. 
  • Ability to Work in a Fast-Paced Environment: Once construction begins, things will begin to move fast. Anything that was missed during the pre-planning phase will arise in construction. You need to be able to think quickly and make a decision on the spot. 

Is Project Engineering a Hard Job? 

I won’t sit here and tell you project engineering is easy.

It can be mentally taxing on you as there’s so much that needs to get done for a project. 

From a high-level view of a project, ensure the following items are covered.

  • Constructibility of the contract drawings
  • All subcontractors are under contract
  • Submittals for the project are approved
  • Material and equipment procurement
  • Scheduling work to occur
  • Oversee the work in progress
  • Closeout and turn over the job

While it may not seem like many tasks, the work can multiply based on the magnitude and complexity of the job. 

Additionally, it can be difficult to complete all your duties within a 40-hour work week. I find myself working 9-10 hour days to make ends meet. 

Is Project Engineering a Good Position? 

At the end of the day, project engineering can be rewarding. Not only do you get to learn how buildings and systems work, but you get to see the result of your hard work. 

Knowing that you had a part in the success of a project is a satisfying feeling. 

The project engineer role also has great career growth potential. 

If you perform most of your work in the field then you can become a construction superintendent. Overseeing a team of guys to determine exactly how to perform a construction activity. 

The office-based project engineer can eventually get into construction project management. Their primary focus will be to manage the construction from the office. 

Most PM responsibilities are like the PE, but they have to worry about the entire job. The PE may be assigned a specific portion of a project. 

The PM won’t really worry about the details of how to perform a certain task. Rather they look at the project as a whole and how to allocate manpower to complete the work. 

Conclusion

Project engineering can be a difficult yet rewarding job. 

If you’re fresh out of college and have an interest in construction, then becoming a PE is a great start. 

When researching companies to work for, consider the following.

  • What type of projects do they work on? Commercial, private, or federal? 
  • What is the magnitude/dollar value of the projects they perform? 
  • If you want to be more specialized then look for a subcontractor role. Otherwise working for a general contractor is another option. 

Depending on the type of construction, this can change the requirements to fulfill. For example, federal jobs have a lot more paperwork than commercial projects. 

The larger the project, the more work there will be. You can expect to work longer hours if the company is taking on multi-million dollar jobs. 

Working for a subcontractor will allow you to specialize in one specific trade. Where general contracting you learn a lot but only understand a little of each. 

My journey from project engineer to project manager has been an eventful one. The people you meet and new experiences are unlike your standard 9 to 5 jobs. 

Also, the fact that every day is so different keeps the work interesting. One day you can be out in the field solving problems. The next day you’re witnessing a crane lift for some huge piece of equipment. 

Before you go, I suggest you check out my article on the difference between a general contractor and a subcontractor. It can give you more insight into which direction you want to take for your career. 

Thank you for reading. 

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