“Everyone is touched daily by the services that engineering provides society, from the water you brew your coffee with in the morning, to the treatment of wastewater when you use the sink, to the road you take and the bridge you drive over, to the home you live in, to the disposal of solid waste in sanitary landfills, to the process of improving air quality,” says Joseph M. Edwards, a licensed professional engineer and licensed professional planner.
There are many different types of engineering, including mechanical, chemical, electrical, and civil engineering, and each branch has numerous subdisciplines. Edwards is a civil engineer whose professional background has focused heavily on geotechnical engineering and field and laboratory construction quality control.
Wikipedia defines civil engineering as “a professional engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, including works like roads, bridges, canals, dams and buildings.” Geotechnical engineering is the science of soil mechanics and foundation engineering.
Edwards has had a long and successful career in the field. He is currently an executive vice president at French & Parrello Associates (FPA) in Wall, N.J. He is also a shareholder, a member of the board of directors and quality control officer and corporate secretary. FPA, which has about 150 employees, is a multidiscipline consulting engineer firm, meaning that it provides a variety of engineering-related services that include geotechnical, structural, solid waste and electrical engineering services; designing new or rehabilitated roads, bridges and dams; wireless communications, which involves the design of cell towers, foundations, equipment shelters, site plans and approvals; and laboratory testing for soils, concrete and asphalt, which determines whether the building materials meet a project’s design requirements.
Edwards, a 43-year veteran of his firm, takes great joy in shaping the minds and skills of civil engineers who are just starting out. He also has a lot of insight to share with students who are interested in the career. In addition to private firms, civil engineers can work for large corporations, government agencies, municipal authorities, towns, townships, developers and contractors. The industry currently has a shortage of this type of engineer. “The number of college students graduating in civil and general engineering fields over the last 15 to 20 years has been greatly reduced due to the attraction for students to move into the newer electrical, electronics and wireless communication services associated with computer engineering, laptops, cell phones, tablets, androids, etc. — all of the new toys that we use so often and seem to get engrossed in,” says Edwards.
He believes passionately, however, that civil engineering is a profession worth pursuing. Here, Edwards shares knowledge and highlights from his long and varied career.
- Civil engineers work on a diversity of projects. Edwards has worked on hundreds of different projects in the past four decades, involving quality control, landfills and dam rehabilitation construction projects. One such project is the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, N.J., a concert and event venue for which he was in charge of the quality-control testing services for the building’s precast concrete and structural steel. These elements form the skeleton of the structure and support everything. Another is the expansion of the Middlesex County landfill, in which three large landfill cells (the area of the landfill where the solid waste is stored) were “constructed ‘piggy-back’ over a portion of an older landfill, using new design technologies and codes,” he explains. This project was awarded a 2015 Distinguished Engineering Award by the New Jersey Alliance for Action for its sound environmental infrastructure. Of the many projects that Edwards has tackled, he says, “those that define an engineer’s career are usually the smaller, short-term ones that require the use of experience, extensive knowledge and teamwork to complete quickly and efficiently.” The firm has also taken on some more whimsical projects, such as designing the African Adventure Exhibit at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J., which opened earlier this year. “For the giraffe exhibit, we used multiple disciplines in the tasks, site plans, grading and drainage, storm water control, retaining walls, geotechnical consultation, modular block walls, pavilion structural design, plus mechanical and electrical [engineering],” says Edwards.
- Get ready to work closely with others. “Teamwork is critical to all projects,” notes Edwards. Each project has different levels of assignments, from staff engineers and field technicians acquiring field data, to laboratory technicians characterizing materials, to design engineers evaluating data and working on assembling the project. “The project team assesses the design considerations and develops an approach to solving the problem and implementing the end product,” he says. “This is generally the hardest part of the project and often involves senior staff. It’s also probably the part of the job that I enjoy the most.” The various components of a job’s design goals are then divided up and assigned to team members with different specialties, including those with expertise in geotechnics, hydrology, grading and drainage, foundation properties, site work, roadways and utilities. Regular meetings determine how well the team is working together and if the project is staying on budget. Civil engineers must also work closely with clients. “Clients are involved in the progress reviews to provide their input on the design and to confirm that the project is heading in the direction they wanted,” says Edwards.
- Be prepared to travel — near and far. Civil engineering often involves a mix of office work and fieldwork. The frequency of and need for travel fluctuates significantly with the type of work and with the opportunities available due to industry trends, changes in the economy and project opportunities. Much of the project planning and design work is carried out in the office, and engineers often travel to the project site to meet with clients, review conditions, get data, perform construction inspections and check on the project’s status. While most of FPA’s more recent projects have been located in and around New Jersey, Edwards traveled to a power plant in Ughelli, Nigeria, earlier in his career to provide General Electric with consultation on quality-control inspection.
- Education, certification and on-the-job training are crucial for success. “The main attribute I look for in an entry-level engineer is a willingness to learn,” says Edwards. “If a person has the background education and wants to succeed, he or she can be taught anything.” He was steered toward engineering by his high school guidance counselor due to his aptitude for math, science and music. Many engineers have similar academic strengths. A bachelor’s degree is necessary to become a civil engineer. Edwards graduated from Newark College of Engineering (NCE), which is now one of the colleges in the New Jersey Institute of Technology, with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering (BSCE) degree. Internships are also valuable for civil engineering students. Interns at FPA are typically assigned both fieldwork and office work. “An internship gives you the opportunity to see what the profession is really like, and to help you focus on a more discreet discipline or service line that you find interesting,” says Edwards. “It also gives the company a chance to see your potential and, in many cases, leads to an early job offer after graduation.” Civil engineers must also take an exam after college to receive their Professional Engineer’s (PE) license. Once you land a position, on-the-job training and guidance from colleagues are paramount to success. Many of the more experienced engineers at FPA, for instance, try to include as many team members as possible in the different stages of each project. “An important element throughout the design phase, and later during the construction phase, is to include new staff and junior engineers so that they can learn, grow and move up to higher positions as they gain experience,” Edwards notes.
As he approaches retirement, Edwards encourages young people to think about the possibility of entering the field. “Consider getting on the bus to improve the quality of life for all of the people around you,” Edwards urges. “After you pass the PE exam and the state awards you a license, you will stand with your fellow new engineers and take an oath that states that your main mission is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the public. See if you can do that. You will love it.”
Identify three new things that you learned about civil engineering from this article. What surprised you about how this profession operates?
Joseph Edwards was encouraged by his high school counselor to pursue civil engineering in part because of his aptitude for math and science. These are valuable skills for aspiring engineers. What are some other important skills, both stated and implied, that might help you become a successful civil engineer? Consider the technical, as well as other softer workplace skills.
We learn that a robust computer-engineering field is eroding the job prospects for traditional fields like civil engineering. What does that mean for the future of critical engineering jobs, especially as a huge population of baby boomers retires? Discuss the future of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering with your class and, in groups, design mini-campaigns to promote interest in these fields. How might you convince aspiring job seekers to follow these fascinating career paths? Check out the “Related Links” section in the toolbar that accompanies this article for more insight into the future of these fields. What other fields might be suffering similar issues and need your promotional support?