As we emerge from the pandemic, the U.S. is showing signs of a tightening job market. That means the economy is picking up again — a good sign for job seekers, including those joining the workforce for the first time. Many technical fields, especially engineering, can’t find enough qualified people, which means entry-level workers may have a nice variety of choices before them.
Nowhere is that truer than in the Texas civil engineering industry, where this white-hot field has more demand than supply. If you’re about to enter the engineering profession (or just looking to enter full-time work in general), what should you look for in a first job?
Explore your options early
According to Shelly Mitchell, P.E., vice president of commercial land development for Pape-Dawson Engineers, you should take special care to make sure your first job is the right one for your formative years.
Mitchell first visited Pape-Dawson’s San Antonio office as a civil engineering undergraduate student in 2001. At the time, the company was working on an expansion project for Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and Mitchell was able to see the early CAD design files and hear about site challenges and overall project goals. She said it was one of the first times she saw how a civil engineering degree could transition to a fascinating career.
Based on her experience in the engineering business, Mitchell has an overarching piece of advice for first-time job seekers: don’t take the first offer you get; find a company that’s a good fit for you.
Her initial office visit included a lunch with a handful of female engineers. “I enjoyed hearing their career stories and seeing their interactions and friendships,” she said. “Knowing that engineering can be a male-dominated field, I was encouraged to learn that Pape-Dawson had a lot of female engineers.”
Get excited about your work
Look for companies that are exposed to multiple disciplines with an opportunity to get cross-trained so you can find your niche. Mitchell found that she preferred designing commercial land development projects. And the more challenging, the better. “I enjoy working on the complicated projects because they’re like large 3D puzzles,” she said.
“At my job, I am surrounded by brilliant engineers I collaborate with on a daily basis. Larger complicated projects require maneuvering and planning for zoning, entitlement, and design challenges.”
Entry-level engineers should have fun at their jobs, she said. “You should be able to come in, work on great projects, expand your knowledge, and use the latest technology.”
Mitchell found her passion and encourages others to seek theirs out as well. “I recall being a young engineer at Pape-Dawson and hearing our CEO talk about how it is important to design good projects, because we live in our projects. I’ve really enjoyed working for a firm that values ethical decisions and solid engineering design. I love seeing dirt moving, utility trenches, cranes in the air, and final projects to share with my kids and family.”
See how your aspirations line up with their capacity for growth, too, she says. Hard work led her to become a licensed professional engineer, build an impressive resume of great projects — and eventually become vice president of the land development department of what she considers a leading engineering firm.
“As a brand-new employee, you might feel like you don’t know much, but we’ve all been there.” Her advice is to ask questions, take notes, and work hard. “Don’t worry about what you don’t know. Instead, focus on what you can learn and master.”
Find an organization that matches your sense of ethics
Shelly says to look for employees who are committed to the company, and a company that is equally committed to its people. “As a female vice president with kids, I try to find balance in my life with my career and family. Pape-Dawson has always supported me when I have family matters that require me to be out of the office.” Her advice to the newcomers: evaluate the company’s values. What’s important to them? Is that also what’s important to you?
Another part of that feeling is a company’s commitment to the community. For Shelly, Pape-Dawson’s significant charitable work demonstrates a desire to give back and shows an important aspect of company culture. It also has an employee-run volunteer committee that leads fundraising and volunteer efforts in the community. “I’ve served on the volunteer council multiple years, and this is just another great way to get to know your co-workers and learn about your community.”
A more-general sense of ethics is crucial, too, she says. You should never feel pressured to compromise what’s right. If you do, it’s time to leave. An ethics violation can result in a lost license. It can become a black mark an engineer never escapes.
Here’s the bottom line, according to Mitchell: If you’re starting out in a civil engineering career, spend some time evaluating a company before you sign on to your first job. Find what makes you tick and identify your own personal values early on. Success will follow.
Pape-Dawson Engineers. has provided professional civil engineering consulting for water resources, transportation, environmental, surveying, GIS, and land development projects since 1965. With offices in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and New Braunfels, Pape-Dawson is a leader in the civil engineering area, helping to strengthen communities throughout Texas.
Austin Chamber of Commerce: Pape-Dawson Engineers on Starting a Career in Engineering: 3 Tips to Find Your Best Fit