Leave Feedback

no avatar

Can an engineer do everything?

Ruth Haag • Feb 11, 2014 at 3:00 PM

On February 2 the Sandusky Register ran an article on line entitled: “Commissioners Differ Over Hiring.” The article discussed the relative merits of hiring an additional engineer for the City of Sandusky Engineering Department. The additional engineer would help to oversee the large number of construction projects that the department does each year. The discussion, as reported, devolved into a discussion of the need look at all City staffing rather than just thinking about the Engineering Department.


The part of the discussion that I found interesting was the confusion most people seem to have over what an engineer can do, versus a project manager, or a scientist. Most people feel that you can hire an engineer for virtually any task. While this is very complimentary to the discipline, it is not entirely true. 


If you had an engineer, a project manager and a scientist in a room together to discuss building a bridge over a river, the engineer would ask you how much weight you want the bridge to handle, how much wind it will be subjected to, etc. The engineer, if he is a structural engineer, would perform the calculations to determine how much steel and concrete are needed to ensure that the bridge will stay up. The project manager would ask how much you want to spend, and how fast you want to have the bridge built. The project manager works with scope, schedule and cost. The scientist would ask you why you want a bridge at that location. The scientist, if she is a geologist, might point out that a stronger rock formation at a different part of the river would be a better location for the bridge. The scientist might also point to studies of bridge failures that suggest a different design might be needed. A scientist gathers information, studies it and develops theories. Scientists question everything, even theories that they themselves have come up with.


These disciplines are not interchangeable. An engineer cannot easily locate hazardous waste underground, a natural resources scientist or a hydrogeologic scientist can. A scientist cannot easily determine the thickness of concrete needed in a structure, a structural engineer can. Neither can manage a large project unless they have been trained in project management, but a project manager can.


An ideal engineering department would have a project manager on staff. Project managers are usually trained on-the-job. They learn from other project managers to map out the entire project, look for critical paths, e.g. things that have to happen before other things, and to handle the scope, schedule and cost of the project. The project manager is also a people person. They work with the contractors on the job and make sure they are performing as expected. Good project managers help to save a lot of money on a project. This is simply because a project that runs too long, or has too many work stoppages, costs more money. A good project manager would ensure that the engineer and the scientist cannot change the scope of the job, adding new tasks that would require change orders from the contractors.


Project managers can come from a variety of training backgrounds. Some engineers have been trained to manage projects, as have some scientists, also some business majors. I have run across some good project managers who have no formal college training at all, in those cases the project manager is often called a “superintendent.” 


If a scientist, an engineer and a project manager were to visit the hypothetical bridge-building site, the engineer would be looking at the structure of the components to see if they are what he ordered. The scientist would be looking at the soil to see how it was handling the bridge anchors and the project manager would be asking why the excavator had not been removed from the site now that it was no longer needed, as it was costing over $1,000 per week.


So, if the City’s goal is to control project costs, I would argue that they should be hiring a project manager, not specifically an engineer.

Recommended for You