Day in the life of
Structural Engineer – Quentin Suckling
I am a professional practicing Structural Engineer. I have been working as a Structural Engineer for tier one consultancies for over 16 years. I currently hold the title of Technical Director for a multi-national engineering firm.
What is your work like as a Structural Engineer?
Being a Structural Engineer is a fantastic profession. It provides a real diverse mix of working environment and challenges.
There is never a dull moment as a Structural Engineer and no two days are ever the same. This is probably the reason why I enjoy my work so much. Structural Engineering is also a very broad profession and can often lead to multiple career paths depending on what you’re interested in.
What are your key responsibilities?
Often as a Structural designer, you are responsible for calculating and designing structures to provide a safe place for people to live, work, travel, and play.
This means that you are responsible for the safety of the individuals who use those structures. So it is critical that your buildings and structures are safe and code compliant. I would say the number one responsibility for a Structural Engineer is to ensure the life safety of the people using the structures you have designed, so it’s a pretty big deal!
More recently however the responsibilities of a Structural Engineer have broadened, particularly in light of global warming and scarcity of resources. Structural Engineers are now required to design responsibly in the environments and communities they operate in. This includes ensuring that the projects we work on are environmentally sustainable and do not adversely affect the communities we work in.
Later in your career as a Structural Engineer, you may seek to gain accreditation with your local governing Engineering Body. In my case, being a practicing Structural Engineer in Australia, this is “Engineers Australia”. Often becoming accredited (chartered or registered) is not only a mark of your technical competence but you are also required to abide by a code of ethics which the engineering body stands by. So as an accredited Structural Engineering you are also responsible for operating in an ethical and responsible manner in your day-to-day role as an Engineer.
My Typical Day
My typical days have evolved quite a bit since I first left university…
At the level I’m at now as a Technical Director, I’m not as much “hands on” with the day-to-day analysis and design of projects as I used to be. Although I do still enjoy getting my hands dirty with a good beam, column, or slab design from time to time.
My current day-to-day life as a Structural Engineer involves a blend of:
- Management of a team of Engineers: This involves more softer skills; mentoring, teaching, and resource management
- Cost control of Projects and Project Management: As you advance in your career, you may become responsible for running large projects. This involves not only ensuring that the technical design is correct, but also ensuring that the project is on track to make a profit and the right people are working on the right tasks within the team.
- Site Investigations: We often are required to physically inspect the projects we have designed. This is a great way to break up the day as you are not stuck at a desk all the time. It is also quite something to see a structure you have designed and only seen on drawing sheets take a real world built form that you can touch and feel.
- Technical Work: For me, this is now usually reviewing and checking the design of other Structural Engineers within the organisation to ensure code compliance and technical accuracy.
When I first graduated as a Structural Engineer, my days involved a lot more of the analysis and design side of things. This is something I do enjoy still to this day.
I really enjoy the matter that I am forever learning as an Engineer.
I think the day I stop learning is probably the day I will retire from the industry, although I don’t see that happening any time soon.
There are always advancements in construction techniques as well as design software which gives you a never-ending supply of things to learn.
With today’s advancements in computing and AI, the current innovation in Engineering is in the field of design automation and machine learning. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry and see these advancements take place.
The most satisfying part of being a Structural Engineer is seeing something you have designed and spent time and energy on finally be constructed.
In most cases, the design life of structures you may be a part of needs to stand for 50 years and sometimes 100 years and beyond. So you can really build a bit of a legacy of structures which will stand long after you have retired. I really get a kick out of traveling to the city and seeing the buildings I’ve helped to design.
Because Structural Engineers have a great deal of responsibility to public safety as part of their work, this can sometimes become stressful. Sometimes I have been kept up at night in bed thinking about a particular design I am trying to resolve which is especially critical to the project. However, I think to be a successful Structural Engineer you really do need to appreciate the weight of responsibility that your role has.
Another little downside is that there is often a lot at stake financially depending on the projects you work on. When there is a lot of money involved, there is often some stress involved too. Getting things wrong and costing your client a lot of money is a very real risk and something you need to be mindful of as a Structural Engineer.
Also, time is money, so you may often find that during certain times you are required to work some long hours in order to meet critical deadlines for your designs. There are peaks and troughs however, the important thing is to make the most of the quieter periods while you have the opportunity.
Advice to aspiring Structural Engineers
I hear a lot of young students get very hung up on the mathematics side of things. There is a bit of a perception that you need to love and be very good at mathematics to be a Structural Engineering.
There is some slight truth to this, however, once you are actually in the profession, the mathematics gets much simpler. There is a bit of a hump you need to get over through university, but once you are a practicing Structural Engineer, mid-level high school mathematics is all you really need. So my first bit of advice would be to not get too hung up over the mathematics!
Another advice I would give a student wishing to become a Structural Engineer is to make sure you network as early as possible. That includes while you are a student and studying at University. I’ve come to learn that the technical side of things will come eventually (and you need to work at that there is no doubt about it), but your network is something you need to go out of your way to develop and build.
Another piece of advice I would give is go out and get part time employment as early as you can while studying. Nothing beats hands on learning, and you will be surprised at how little university knowledge you will actually use in the “real world”. It can be competitive when finding your first job, so having several years of experience (even if its part time) in a reputable firm will really sit your head and shoulders above the rest.
Structural Engineers are responsible for calculating and designing structures that are safe for people to live, work, travel, and play in.