Working as a Consulting Engineer

January 5, 2015

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobIf you don’t want to run an engineering firm, or retire working for one, consider working as a consulting engineer.

This is a much simpler route than setting up a full engineering company, as Randy Iliff of bb7 notes:

“An engineering consultancy is fairly easy to create, requiring only skills, contacts, a little business sense, and enough capital that you can build a business base over time without selling out to bad opportunities.  There is a lot of sales and accounting overhead to be dealt with, but nothing like the level of overhead that comes with hiring employees and having a building to pay for.”

If management isn’t for you, consulting may be a more attractive option. You stay hands-on, doing the things you love, and leave worrying about payrolls and HR to your clients.

Where Do Your Clients Come From?

Working as a Consulting Engineer engineers in field USACE

Credit: USACE

Structural engineer Jason Schwyn set up his own consultancy in 2010, after being laid off. He specializes in signage and design work for commercial and industrial clients. “Working for large companies gives you a lot of experience on all sorts of different types of projects, but as a consulting engineer you have to focus, develop your expertise, and find a niche,” he says.

His client list is diverse. “In this economy even big firms are looking at small jobs. You can bid for the jobs that are too small for big companies. You also find yourself with smaller clients looking for short, one-off contracts to do a single small job. You have two big advantages to offer – price and expertise. A consulting engineer is usually more reasonably priced, and my clients get an engineer with 15 years experience instead of a project manager with a team consisting of a lot of new kids fresh out of school. They get a much more personal relationship with me than they would if they were dealing with a big firm.”

The biggest challenge is finding those clients, especially in the early days when you’re still building your reputation. Advertising helps, but the most effective method is good old-fashioned networking. “Introduce yourself to architects,” he says. “Find out who their clients are, and offer your services through them. Go knocking on doors, meet people, and hustle. That can be hard for many engineers. We’re not always the best socially, but you have to get used to going out, meeting people, and selling yourself.”

It’s All Up to You, Now

Working as a Consulting Engineer Young Engineer Explaining Display Engineer Jobs US Dept of Education

Credit: US Dept of Education

One problem with working as a consultant engineer is that you can’t delegate. You have to be prepared to learn all the skills you need. “If there’s enough work for a drafter, I can contract it out to them,” says Schwyn. “If not, I have to be able to do it myself. It’s the same for every other job I need to do.”

This extends to every type of skill: administrative, commercial, financial and marketing. You can bring in freelancers when required, but you will at least need a basic understanding to assess the quality of their work.

You’ll need to learn accounting, website management, social media, advertising, and the legal requirements of your state. You’re responsible for keeping up to date with current regulations and methodologies, as well as maintaining all your own tools and equipment.

It’s a lot of work, and it can easily become overwhelming. A disciplined approach is essential. Maintain a checklist of all the things you need to remember: when payments are due, or when paperwork needs to be filed, and develop a system for keeping track of every client and their needs.

The key to being a successful consulting engineer is to approach it with the right state of mind. If you value independence, and aren’t afraid of long hours and lean times, it can be enormously liberating.