What is the best construction career path for a project engineer?

What is the best construction career path for a project engineer?

There isn’t one right way to create a construction career path. Like most things in life, a single goal can be reached multiple ways. Some workers may start out in a trade and get enough work experience to take on management roles, while others take a four-year bachelor’s degree and start directly on the executive track.

A project engineer (PE) is a great place to start on the construction ladder. While part of the construction management team, the project engineer is usually responsible for key deliverables within a project, rather than overseeing the entire thing.

Still, a project engineer is a leadership position, and demonstrating the ability to create schedules, coordinate with subcontractors and prepare their contracts, and manage costs are great ways to take on greater responsibility and move up the career ladder.

Many project engineers use the position as a stepping stone to higher paying roles. A project engineer’s average salary is around $62,000 per year, while a project manager brings in an average of $97,000 a year and a senior superintendent can fetch an average annual salary of $144,000. Aside from salary, influence over a project and perceived prestige both improve as a career progresses.

So what is a typical path for a project engineer to move up to more senior and executive positions in the construction industry?

Step One: Senior Project Engineer

A person might move from project engineer to Sr. PE in just a couple of years, but may not move up to project manager for as long as a decade. The speed of this transition is contingent on many factors, such as the size of the company or project, the number of open positions available, and how rapidly you are able to learn the required skillset to move to the next level.

Earning this experience comes from taking on additional responsibilities than traditional project engineer work, like material procurement, handling requests for information (RFIs), or preparing materials for submittals.

Some of the most crucial skills needed to reach the next level – that of a project manager – are less tangible, and take time to learn and foster. Communication skills and a knack for diplomacy, for instance, are required to manage owner expectations and to keep subtrades abreast of schedule changes that appear along the way to a project’s completion, says Shane Hedmond, construction project manager and editor-in-chief of constructionjunkie.com.

While some people are naturally better at interpersonal interactions, experience, carefully observing your PM, and even communications courses can help teach those valuable skills.

Once these leadership qualities have been honed, a senior project engineer can think about taking on the next challenge: the role of a project manager.

Step Two: Project Management

By this point in a construction career, a newly minted project manager (PM) knows how to bring a project all the way from planning to closeout, balancing schedules, budgets, and relationships along the way.

Project managers spend some of their time in an office, pouring over spreadsheets that track known issues, work schedules and resource planning, budgets and looking ahead to next steps on projects. Equally, owner meetings and site inspections bring PMs to the field, where they’ll strategize with trades workers and ensure everything is working according to plan.

After a few years, a PM could move into a senior project manager position, having demonstrated the ability to manage multiple teams and see a project through contract disputes while maintaining important relationships along the way. To move up in the company, a project manager should show a thorough understanding of the company’s goals and how to leverage hard-won relationships to reach them. 

While it’s true that senior project managers get to be in charge of larger or more complex projects, it is often this executive thinking that differentiates them from a regular PM. Senior project managers may mentor or evaluate other PMs, and will be put at the helm of a troubled project or relationship and be expected to put it back on track. If they’re on the executive track they’ll also be expected to work toward building and improving the business. 

Step Three: Project Executive

A project executive (PX) looks to the big picture to assess future opportunities and avoid potential pitfalls in the business. Working with project managers, the PX ensures projects are meeting budgets and scheduling milestones, and steps in to soothe fraught client relationships when the need arises. In this way the project executive can help the PM in making each project a success.

Having honed the personal skills required to foster important relationships, the project executive works to bring in more business for the company.

By the time a person becomes a project executive he or she likely has close to 15 years of experience in the industry. As the seasoned pro on the project team, the PX liaises between the PM and the company executives.

The next rung on the corporate ladder may be a role as general manager or vice president, depending on the organization.  A general manager spends a lot of time looking at the day-to-day activities of team members, making sure they’re meeting their deliverables, while a vice president of operations makes sure teams are working toward meeting the goals of the company.

Step Four: Vice President of Operations

The vice president of operations manages project teams across entire divisions of a company, building efficiencies and ensuring everyone hits budget, schedule, and safety targets. A key responsibility of the VP of Operations is effective workforce management, including building high performance project teams and allocating project engineers, managers, and executives to the various projects in the company’s pipeline.

The VP of operations will also assess future opportunities, evaluating each as it fits with the company’s goals and operational bandwidth.

A vice president of operations often sits just below C-suite executives in the hierarchy of the organization. 

What Will Your Construction Career Path Look Like?

This is a common path through a construction management career, from project engineer through VP and up to C-suite roles, but not everybody’s experience will be the same. Some smaller companies may not have project executives, for example, having senior project managers and superintendents take over those duties instead. Some project managers enter their roles straight out of a construction management course, never acting as a project engineer.

The common thread for you to remember is that as time goes on, experience will teach a construction manager what to look out for, how to solve common problems, and how to communicate successfully with all members of the team from tradespeople to CEOs. Certifications can be a useful way to improve these skills faster. These skills enable you to craft a successful career in construction and be recognized as a leader in the role you perform at any point in time.


Daphne Gorman

Daphne Gorman is the Talent Acquisition Lead at Bridgit. With over 16 years of experience recruiting and retaining top talent, Daphne understands how important an inclusive culture is to the recruitment process and maintaining an engaged workforce.

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