So You Want to be a Civil Engineer?
Our “So You Want To Be” series interviews men and women in engineering or jobs that require an engineering background to ask about their career, how they got into their line of work, and what their job entails.
Today’s interview is with Rebecca Clark, a Civil Engineer and project manager at Skanska Koch, a division of the construction / engineering giant Skanska USA that specializes in building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels. She has nearly thirteen years experience in engineering – from offshore oil rigs to a $500M rehabilitation of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her current project is the rehabilitation of the Fore River Bridge just outside Boston.
Tell Us a little about your background.
Originally from New Jersey, I attended a five year joint program with Columbia and Fairfield University (in Connecticut) for my undergraduate education. So I have a bachelor’s degree in physics from Fairfield and a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Columbia – the program’s intent was to create a well-rounded engineer with a bachelor of arts in Physics and a bachelor of science in Civil Engineering.
After graduation I worked on offshore oil rigs for 2 years and have been with Skanska since. I have been an engineer for twelve years now – almost thirteen. I am also currently pursuing an MBA at Fordham.
Can you describe your work as a Civil Engineer with Skanska?
Currently I am a project manager and basically, in this position, you act as the liaison between the owner and general contractors. So, for example, lets say the New York Department of Transportation, the designers, and then the labor force. As a project manager you oversee your team that supervises the labor force that’s doing the physical work. And you are coordinating the design and different fabrication elements and act as the main liaison to the owner.
What is a typical day like as a Civil Engineer Project Manager?
In a typical day the job is usually about putting out fires, going to meetings, following up on the project, and making sure the project is moving according to the critical path or main schedule of the job. Though no two days are the same… typically, day-to-day you are going to meetings, then on site observing work going on… and also coordinating with the different materials to ensure they are are getting there on time… and then that the design components are in and submitted… and approved.
Projects Rebecca has worked on with Skanska (in pictures):
Why did you choose Civil Engineering?
I loved math and always, always had a passion for bridges. Really, I’ve always been awed by bridges. And I think one of my grandfathers once told me, “I think you should be an engineer.” So since the 7th or 8th grade I’ve always talked about being an engineer and I think that really set the course. That was all I wanted to be.
And for me, becoming an engineer was an important way to tangibly make a difference in the lives of others. The infrastructure of a city is it’s blood and lifeline. Buildings and sewage and bridges and tunnels and water – all are affiliated with infrastructure. Understanding how they are all connected is the equivalent of understanding how a city (and an economy) works. Infrastructure equals the heartbeat and pulse of a city.
You are the first female engineer we’ve interviewed. So I have to ask – what is it like to be a woman in engineering?
It isn’t an issue but it is definitely a hurdle. It is my understanding now that [in college engineering programs] the ratio is a little more equivalent… but when I was in it was only about 20%. [Even with that low percentage] I only encountered one difficult professor.
As a woman, you have to have thick skin. And you do have to be prepared to prove yourself at a different level. Once you gain the respect [as an engineer] then your coworkers will have your back – but it’s definitely a part of the job… proving yourself. You’re always hard at work. You’re invisible till you make yourself visible and gain the respect.
As a whole the construction industry isn’t very diverse to begin with. It’s still relatively new to have women working on the project – never mind being an engineer and running the project.
At Skanska we are trying to focus on this by developing an [engineering] women’s network. It’s hard to retain women because it’s an interesting profession to balance… especially from the operations side. You are on site frequently, working out of trailers, getting your boots on, getting your hands dirty and you’re exposed to different elements – and there are a lot of dangers and safety precautions in place. So I think the construction industry as a whole is trying to get a grip on that and trying to manage that [the lack of women in the industry].
As a woman in engineering, I’d say it really has to be a passion. You just have to go to work and perform your job. That will speak volumes.
What advice would you give a student who wants to be a Civil Engineer?
As a student – do co-ops. Co-ops are great. When I was in college I always had internships and I think, to me, those were priceless. A lot of people we hire end up coming through our co-op or internship programs. It gives the student and the company a chance to assess fit. So, if you are a student, make sure you take advantage of those opportunities.
Once there – ask any and all questions you can when you are a new employee or trainee.
And I also think it’s important for men and women as engineers to weigh out what kind of engineer they want to be. A lot of [college] engineering programs at base level involve ALL types of engineers, but when you decide what route to take it’s important that you really dive in and study the kind of engineering that interests you.
So, for example, this can be the design side or the construction side of civil engineering. These career paths are very different, though intertwined, and so I think that’s an important facet for engineering students to understand the type of work they want to do and to get that experience with those professions as an intern or through a co-op.
What is the best part about being a civil engineer and project manager? The worst?
The best part of the job is the ability to make a tangible difference. No matter which way you look at it, being involved in the infrastructure and components involved in transportation makes a big difference. It is a lifeline for a city, for people. You can physically see what you’ve built. And the revisions you’ve made.
The most epic moment of my career thus far was watching the World Trade Center come out of the skyline from the top of the Brooklyn bridge… that’s when construction is really representing the heart of America. I am really passionate about New York and these structures.
The negative components are all affiliated with the glass ceiling…. And time. A lot of time. There are times you have to be on site in the middle of the night because there’s an emergency. Your job is around the clock. And, also, it’s a dangerous job. You are, on occasion, exposed to fatalities on the job. There is a lot of liability in construction and as a project manager you are responsible for people’s safety. Everyone preaches safety but ensuring it is different. And when your job involves people’s lives it takes it up a few notches.
How would you describe your work-life balance?
There is a huge level of commitment in this job. We start early because the trade industries start early. Most days we’re on job sites by 6:30 am and typically I don’t leave till about 6 p.m. That is a long duration. And it may not be a mandated requirement but it’s a demanding job and there’s a lot of components that need to work together to be successful. So sometimes there is weekend work, sometimes night work and sometimes there are emergencies in the middle of the night.
Now I don’t have children so I think that would be a whole different level of trying to do a work-life balance.
So my advice is not to get pigeon holed [in your civil engineering career], to stay flexible in your role, just in the event you want to have more of a work-life balance. You have to make yourself more marketable in that realm.
What is Civil Engineering’s career trajectory like? How do you “climb the ladder”?
I think [climbing the ladder] takes champions and sponsors. It’s imperative that you build good relationships with managers and coworkers and it is very helpful to have sponsors. By sponsors I mean someone that you have worked with, or worked for, that champions you and believes in you.
As far as advancing in a male-dominated industry like this one, it is extremely important that you understand the value of networking and the value of networking events. To be the prospective person they think of for the next role it helps when you’re the first person they think about; the obvious choice to take it to the next level.
What actionable takeaways or advice would you give young engineers?
I think it’s always important (and I go to a lot of schools on career days and tell this to a lot of kids) to follow your passion. And that you take the time, early, to set the goals and set your path; because the person that is going to make it happen is you, no matter where you come from or what advantages or disadvantages you’ve had.
Also – you will spend a lot of time working so I really think it’s imperative that you work on something you’re passionate about.
Can you tell me more about your Civil Engineering volunteer work?
The most current thing I’ve worked on, with Skanska’s support, was in The Democratic Republic of the Congo for about 15 days. I was working with HEAL Africa to help them build an extension on the hospital. This hospital basically focuses on victims of rape and abuse, as well as treating victims of warfare. And it was great to have Skanksa’s support. Before going and after going [to the Congo] I was heavily involved with the drawings, organizing the materials, and making sure they were on budget.
That was… an amazing experience.
Background provided before the interview:
“Rebecca served as the lead engineer on the project, utilizing her career expertise (10 years with Skanska) to contribute to the hospital’s expansion and the community infrastructure. Her main focus was providing project management and superintendent assistance for the construction of the new three-story hospital building expansion, and she worked alongside the director of HEAL Africa USA and the Congolese engineer/ builder, helping with the layout and build of the building – which in a foreign, third-world country, was no easy task.”
For me, personally, volunteering has always been a big part of my life. During Hurricane Katrina’s clean up I went down there for a couple weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time in Honduras volunteering. And in Mexico I’ve built homes. But I’ve always done it with some other affiliation, it has been [to this point] a personal initiative. Now that I’ve been able to obtain the support of Skanska that has been a big help. Right now I’m working on trying to get Skanska to do weekend [volunteering] events.
Recently I’ve been working with a lot of the guys I went to engineering school with – we all played soccer together [at school]. So we have gotten together, formed a nonprofit, and built an indoor soccer stadium in Texas that helps underprivileged children. It’s called “Golazo”.
From Golazo’s about page:
“Golazo provides children, adults, amateurs and professional soccer players with year-round world-class facilities, training and play, including seasonal league and tournament play in order to build skill levels, provide healthy competition and give guidance that will enhance individual character as well as skills in an air conditioned, clean and fun environment.
Golazo has a full staff of professional coaches providing the highest levels of service for a total soccer experience. What you will find at Golazo is any training, any practice, any competition and any soccer-related event available to anyone in some shape or form at Golazo Soccer. Our goal is to cultivate the RGV soccer talent at all levels and provide a fun, safe and secure way for youth and adults to enhance their skills and opportunities for their and the community’s long-term benefit.”
The people you’re going to school with now will be a part of your life and their engineering knowledge and friendship may be helpful in the future. It’s important to remember that.
I’ve done a lot of volunteer work in my life and been in third world countries and it’s hard, difficult, to feel helpless or watch others feel helpless.
One of the key components of civil engineering, for me, is the tangible difference… even when it’s working on the Brooklyn bridge… it is the lifeline of the city. That tangible impact is really important to me.
I think it’s important to utilize your skill sets in a way that makes a tangible difference in the world.
All images used in this article courtesy of Rebecca Clark.
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Education Required: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, PE certification (preferred).
Salary Range: $62,000 – $200,000 for the category “Civil Engineer, Bridge” in New York City or Boston, with $98,382 as the median salary. (According to Payscale.com)
Work Schedule: Project-based. Regular hours with expectation of working overtime when a project demands it.
Industries: Civil Engineering