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Civil Engineering

Job Prospects and Recruiter Expectations For Civil Engineering Grads Build Momentum

By Shayna Sobol

With the kind of employment picture being painted at top universities across the country, civil engineering graduates should be dancing in the streets. My overall feel is that it's [the employment outlook] probably the best that I've seen in five or six years," proclaims Dr. Michael K. Stenstrom, professor and chair, department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

The news is likewise positive at Texas A&M University in College Station and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. Dr. Ray W. James, director of student services for Texas A&M's civil engineering department, cites as one example the employers in nearby Houston, who, he says, simply can't find enough engineers to hire. Meanwhile, Dr. Chris Hendrickson, head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon, notes a particular interest among employers in the environmental sector, as well as those in the construction industry.

Recruiters expect quality

Regardless of whom you talk to these days, the news is overwhelmingly positive. Yet while the number of job prospects for civil engineering grads has gone through the roof, so, too, have the expectations of recruiters. Ironically, an improved economy and overall need for new engineers has not eased the standard of quality sought by competitive firms nationwide. "Employers are being a lot more careful with whom they hire," says UCLA's Stenstrom. "They've learned that layoffs and downsizings are very painful and therefore want to be very cautious about sizing up. They're interviewing much more diligently and exploring references more."

Multidisciplinary backgrounds top off interest

According to Carnegie Mellon's Hendrickson, employers appear particularly interested in grads with multidisciplined backgrounds. "There's a lot of interest in students who bridge civil engineering and information technology, for example," notes Hendrickson. "Secondly, there's an interest in those who can bridge a civil education with an international twist, such as foreign language skills. Thirdly, employers are looking for people who combine civil engineering with management skills, such as marketing and re-engineering."

Economic factors pave the way

UCLA's Stenstrom points to several economic factors in the U.S. that are affecting employment trends significantly. Generally, he cites as sizable trends regrowth in the American economy and the need to replace an aging infrastructure. On the home front, Stenstrom says the conservative approach to managing Los Angeles taken by the city's mayor, Richard Riordan, has had its own impact on UCLA's engineering graduates. "The net result of Mayor Riordan's approach is that the city agencies are hiring fewer people than they used to," Stenstrom explains. "It's a trend that I happen to agree with. Increasingly, things are getting done better, with fewer people."

The deregulation of the power industry is another business trend of note, according to Stenstrom, who says, "It's creating a temporary upheaval as power companies lay off people previously doing energy development and conservation programs. That's creating a temporary surplus of engineers in the market," he continues, "but those professionals will likely be re-employed by private companies." The positive spin on this trend is that more start-up companies have thrown their hats in the ring where energy development is taking place and have, in effect, created a new area of demand for engineers.

On a worldwide scale, James of Texas A&M points to the construction industry as aggressively driving employment of university graduates. "This is particularly evident with companies like Fluor Daniel, which does design of industrial facilities and petrochemical plants worldwide," James says. "Other heavy construction firms are similarly overworked, thanks to a strong economy, and so are looking to hire more engineers."

Knowledge of information technology a premium

On the eastern front, Carnegie Mellon's Hendrickson notes a downturn in productivity among conventional civil engineering firms that do general design work. On the other hand, he assures, doors are opening up for graduates who are knowledgeable about information technologies. "People who can apply that knowledge to the architectural construction world are at a real premium," he says. "The same goes for those specializing in computational mechanics, who can work large-scale numeric programs, although that's more on the master's level."

In spite of ever-improving job prospects in the field of civil engineering, Hendrickson says a significant number of graduates still take their education and apply it to non-civil engineering domains. For example, he notes that management consulting firms and software companies hire his grads. "After all," he adds, "civil engineering is a reasonable background for doing several things."

Graduate degrees a given

In light of the industry's increasing demands for multidisciplinary talent, Hendrickson says as a general rule, students are encouraged to pursue a master's-level education at some point in their careers. Last year, he notes, about a third of Carnegie Mellon's engineering undergraduates went on to graduate school. "The last time we surveyed our alumni, we found that about two-thirds had gone on to graduate school," Hendrickson says. "The most popular pursuit was a master's of science in civil engineering, followed by an MBA and then law school.

In more traditional areas of civil engineering, Texas A&M's graduates seem to have plenty of opportunities from which to choose, according to James. "With the wide spectrum of employers hiring our people (Texas Department of Transportation, Brown & Root and Bechtel among them), I suspect about 95% of our students will be doing some type of traditional engineering work, either in the public or private sector," he observes.

A 3.2 with communication skills gets the job over a 3.7 with none

All three sources interviewed for this article note the importance of communication skills being part of a 1998 graduate's repertoire. UCLA's Stenstrom goes so far as to say that employers will pick a student with a 3.2 GPA and good communication skills over a person with a 3.7 GPA or even higher who has poor communication skills.

Along those same lines, Texas A&M's James confirms an established emphasis on teaching communication skills in that university's technical curriculum. "Certainly, it's not at the expense of technical skills, but we do try to strengthen our people with communication ability in addition to computational and analytical skills," he says. Carnegie Mellon's Hendrickson adds leadership potential to the mix. "Employers are still interested in technical competence," he says. "But a combination of skills, including the ability to lead and communicate, creates the most desirable candidate.

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