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Perspectives: The Value of Field Work in Engineering 

Perspectives: The Value of Field Work in Engineering 

Close up engineering woman hand is touching virtual reality Analytics engineering data in a field over electrical turbines background

By Justin Reeves, PE, LEED AP and Austin Duehr, PE, ENV SP

Bright minds from Aristotle to Albert Einstein have expounded on the benefits of Learning by Doing. For engineers new to the business, an experiential approach can help them make significant headway in our industry.  Project site observations, over the course of even just one project, can begin to bridge the gap between what it takes to be a good engineer on paper and what it takes to be a great engineer in practice.

Colleagues Justin C. Reeves, PE, LEED AP and Austin Duehr, PE, ENV SP with Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN) provide a practical look at how to create an environment that values this experiential method of learning.  

Justin Reeves is Vice President at LAN responsible for all municipal infrastructure design in North Texas. He oversees all utility, roadway, and drainage work for municipalities, water districts and river authorities in his region. He discusses the crucial converging point for engineers between what works in concept and what works in reality during the actual construction operation.

Justin Reeves, PE

As a regional leader, I am always looking for ways to improve our service to clients. So, I’m constantly asking the question, ‘How can we develop design documents more efficiently or make decisions quicker to the benefit of our clients and our communities?’  It is no surprise to think that training, of any magnitude, will help on both fronts, and I believe that field training stands above most, if not all, other forms of training and instruction. 

I have had the privilege of interviewing, hiring, training, and watching the development of young engineers for more than ten years now. I have seen those with field experience more quickly grasp concepts and more readily take ownership of ideas. As a result, we have worked to integrate field experience into the growth plan of all of our young staff, including identifying field visits and construction exposure as key goals or metrics of a successful internship. 

We require our engineers-in-training to visit projects in the field. Working with a senior engineer/mentor on initial visits helps them to see and better understand what to look for on a project. This safe environment allows them to ask questions and develop their own understanding of potential challenges or conflicts that could impact the development of our construction documents. 

We also foster partnerships with contractors so the newer engineers can observe construction up close.  Participating in progress meetings gets them familiar with construction nomenclature and exposes them to the perspectives of the builder, which is critical to successful design.

From our vantage point, academic institutions provide exceptional education and training for engineering theory; however, bridging the gap into practice can be a struggle. We ease that transition by providing various teachers. For example, senior engineers and contractors can guide and instruct them in various settings: in the office, in the field before construction, and on the jobsite during construction.  

Here’s a real-world example: In a geotechnical based or construction equipment course, you can learn the importance of soil compaction, especially in utility trenches. In the office, you can examine standard details, watch videos, and evaluate the theory behind well compacted embedment, but oftentimes you only see the result – no one posts videos of the installation that failed. 

In the field, however, your senses are stirred. You can see an excavator dumping material into the trench, you can observe how spreading material can form a good base, and you can understand the value of a good equipment operator. You can smell the exhaust, feel the difference of well compacted material, and hear the superintendent give instructions to laborers. Engineers can see the bright safety features on the site, the granularity of the soil, and the dynamics of a real-life project. They can hear the equipment roaring and understand the area needed to accommodate construction activity. They can feel the vibration of the ground and the heat of the sun. In all of it, they develop a better appreciation for a design coming to life. These experiences help to create a meaningful connection to the work and thus our service to the public – it develops an all-encompassing passion for engineering.

One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain: “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” This certainly has that Twain wit, but it is really a reminder that learning by doing provides unique benefits.

From a manager’s perspective, it appears that field training is an essential learning tool.  How does it truly impact the employee and their career path? Austin Duehr has seen the benefits of field training as a young engineer and now as a project manager. 

Austin Duehr, PE, ENV SP

Let me paint you a picture.  I graduated from college in the Midwest and was immediately offered a full-time civil engineering position with a Wisconsin firm.  The company wanted me to work outside during summer where temps topped out at about 80 degrees and in the office during the winter to support design activity.

At the time, I thought the gig was wonderful; it allowed me to be outside during the summer and work in a cozy office when the bitter cold weather halted construction. Looking back on that experience today though, it provided much, much more than just good weather benefits.

In the summer, I worked around 55 hours a week performing on-site construction observations for municipalities. It gave me the ability to rapidly expand on the contextual engineering concepts I learned in school. Now that I’m a project manager, those experiences have inspired me to encourage younger staff to stay inquisitive during designs, instead of following a playbook. I want them to visit sites where they can physically see what’s happening.  Assigning them field duties as one part of their early training adds value to the engineer and their organization. 

Many graduating engineers have their first real glimpse of engineering and design behind a computer screen for eight hours.  Using software, these fresh engineers can “see” the roadway crossings and pipeline’s profiles underground. While they are visualizing the design, there can be an inevitable disconnect to its practical application in the field.  

The relationship between engineers who are tasked with designing functional, maintainable, and sustainable infrastructure and those professionals who are tasked with operating, maintaining, and preserving that infrastructure can be strengthened. That collaboration can be bolstered by exposing design engineers to real life practical situations in the field – actually watching infrastructure be constructed.  Day-to-day site observations create “anchors” by demonstrating good engineering practice and design principles.

If we know living and breathing examples give more anchors to tie the memory to, we should be motivated to develop that opportunity.  Engineers are fortunate enough to have the luxury of multiple “classroom” settings that can enrich their learning experience. The desire to grow and continuously develop should motivate engineers to utilize multi-sensory education settings, such as job sites, to engage both sides of the brain and increase the ability to store information longer than lectures or reading alone.

Lessons learned in the field are often fast paced. It is a new challenge for young engineers but promotes rapid development and maturity for the design professional. Our profession thrives on continued education, so why waste time?  Field work brings your projects to life, and isn’t this why we became engineers: to build things. 

As an industry, those new to engineering need field exposure and the opportunities to experience it. As Reeves and Duehr point out, this is part of an engineer’s education and serves as a good foundation for developing infrastructure solutions.  By doing so, it supports the evolving needs of the public and serves to continuously improve the quality of life for the communities we serve.