The Structural Engineer!

“Nothing quite prepares you for actual design work as raw experience”

Dated: 18 March 2012

Some say I know it all – stability, load transfer, structural analysis, behavior of materials, management …  I understood my physics and I know my MATHS!!!! … Do you seriously think, that’s all we need to BECOME AN ENGINEER. But I am gonna say Nope, Not at all. I am a glad you got a degree in Engineering from a highly reputed university, but that’s not enough, Let’s Learn It Now – Learn to Think – Learn to become an Engineer. [Something I learnt through discussion “Challenges faced by the graduates at the start of their career” with David Morris, Principal at Arup].


At many occasions, I have been struck with the question of whether the recent graduates are qualified for the actual work done in the industry? Are they taught the necessary (both hard and soft) skills required to perform in the construction industry? Is the current academic training to become an engineer sufficient to face the challenges waiting ahead? Remember Ronan Point, London in 1968, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma in 1995, World Trade Centre Towers, New York in 2011, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, in 1940. Are you capable enough to deal with such situations? Capable enough to avoid them!


No! As a new graduate in industry, neither am I and nor are you. Just learning pages and pages of theoretical concepts by heart to clear the exams doesn’t really make you an engineer but it does get you an entry pass into the world of engineering.  Questioning my statement? As an example – how many of you have tried cooking? All of you. Whether it was a successful or unsuccessful attempt, that’s a totally different subject. But when you try something you go and find the best recipe available. No matter how well the recipe is written or how many times you have read it before trying it yourself  – you will not know what will happen in real. Will it turn out tasty? That you will only know once you try it. You will do mistakes and learn from your mistakes – and lessons learnt from the mistakes are not easily forgotten. In the same way you might know what is an ideal w/c ratio for the required strength of concrete but with no experience you will have no feel of reality – because there is no such thing as  IDEAL when it comes to the real world. Structural estimations – anyone can put values in equations and get the values but which value is right and what seems to be the no practical answer is something that is crucial in structural industry and not covered as a part of the academics.


“Structural engineering theory can be taught in the classroom and whilst high standards of functional design can be achieved through this teaching I believe that excellence in structural engineering practice can only be learnt, first hand on the construction site. Seeing ones designs on paper is quite different to seeing them executed on site. Experience of how a structure fits together and more importantly the sequence and procedures of how it is constructed will result in designs that are functional as well as practical.[Andrew Heffer, Senior Structural Engineer, WSP Property and Development]


Loads are applied to the slabs, which sit on the beams; beams are connected to columns; columns take the load down to foundations and foundations transfer them to the ground. This is where the teachings of the university curricula limits – theoretical appreciation and some working knowledge of the basics skills. How??? Is what remains uncovered until you have done it yourself. It is the translation of the skills into the real work situations, application of the academic prowess into the practical design solutions, which is required to bridge the gap between academia and practicality. Remember, “Engineering is a career, which requires your life long devotion towards learning”.


Entry-level structural engineers or graduates are indeed hired based on their academic progress but after some years in the industry – experience gained through in-job-action will account for your credibility. Reasons for the primary causes of engineering failure are mainly related to


  • Human factors (Insufficient knowledge, underestimation of influence, ignorance, forgetfulness etc.)
  • Design flaws
  • Material failures
  • Extreme conditions and environments


This is where experience requirements of the structural engineering become apparent to overcome problems related to varied projects and problems.


‘Your first projects after graduation are 100% learning of new things. After a few projects, you start to build up a ‘feel’ for results and also gain some techniques that have worked/not worked before. You never reach the point where you have learnt everything and it wouldn’t be any fun if you did, but the point at which your confidence grows, based on your experience in reaching good solutions, efficiently and creatively is when you start to feel that you are becoming a better engineer’. [Jane Richards, 
Senior Technical Director, Property & Development]


You will go through many phases of the learning cycle. Early days will bring stage where you will learn from experimentation you will find solutions to your problems by trail and error, choosing many right answers and still not knowing which is practical one.  You will write down every thing for your records. Sooner you will start to collaborate with others, initially with the intensions to learn if what you have done is right or wrong and then to develop your ideas through reflection of their experience to develop you own intuition of practical design.


‘Being involved with building structures you very soon become aware of the bigger picture: how your structural design fits in with the other disciplines and the client’s drivers. You start out designing in isolation but soon enough you design in collaboration.’ [Matt Goswell, Associate WSP Property and Development]


But the key here is to critically assess and evaluate your performance; examine your skills and make them your asset. I never fail to emphasize the importance of challenging your skills. Working in the culture of sharing experience and willingness to pass on knowledge by the huge wealth of mentors and senior engineers; exposing yourself to new concepts and learning methodologies in practice, getting your hands dirty and recording them not just for yourself but to discuss with your managers, senior engineers and reflecting back at your progress forms continual professional development (more rigorous at the early years btw).


For all the students and graduates in the next coming years. Please focus on getting as much as possible experience in you bank through internships, work-placements etc. to develop the industrial skills as the market is not in a good condition which means you have a lot more competitive market than the graduates in the last decade or so. Good luck!


MORAL – Let’s Learn It Now – Learn to Think – Learn to become an Engineer. Because nothing quite prepares you for actual design work, as raw experience.


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This entry was posted on April 19, 2014 by .

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