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Do you have to practice as a designer or work for a design firm if you get your PE License?

  • 25 February, 2021

In a lot of ways, majoring in structural engineering and pursuing your P.E. License pigeon-hole you into a specific career path. When I was in school studying structural engineering, I thought I had a few options: work for a design firm crunching numbers and buried in code books all day or continue my education and go into the academic or research field. The truth is, there are quite a few other industries that you can get into. Whether or not you ever P.E. stamp a set of drawings or intend to, should not deter you from pursuing a professional license.

I personally have worked for a design firm. I did a lot of work designing power substations for a local utility company, schools, office buildings, and a lot of seismic analysis and retrofit design of existing buildings. I was very much doing the type of work that I studied in school. I later found myself working for a steel fabrication company managing complex fabrication for the transportation, hydro and nuclear industries. I worked to design manufacturing plans and procedures for building things efficiently within budget. I was now seeing things built and it was exciting and fulfilling. I got the job because of my technical background and the fact that I had never actually built anything, or worked in any sort of trade, was not an issue. There were really two basic groups of people I worked with: engineers with degrees (some of them licensed), or former welders, machinists or inspectors that had left the fabrication floor for the office.

Do you have to practice as a designer or work for a design firm if you get your PE License?

I still work in the steel fabrication industry to this day. I eventually moved up into a project management role where I ensure that product is fabricated in accordance with contractual specifications, on budget and on schedule. I got my PE license while working in this role and it was very much supported by my company. Since getting my license, I have only once stamped a set of drawings for a small project that had design responsibility. However, the power of a professional license goes beyond just working for a designer and stamping final designs. In the fabrication industry, as well as general contracting, construction, or other specialty trades, you are the one taking a design from an engineer and physically making it a reality. The technical understanding of load paths and strengths of material are still used, but the means and methods for manufacturing are then added to that creating a whole different set of skills. Being able to have conversations with engineers when changes need to be made is much easier with a technical background and better received when you are licensed. My professional resume is often used when my company bids on work to prove that we have capable and licensed professionals that can execute projects.

Engineering is such a broad discipline. Even narrowing it to structural engineering is broad. The set of skills you obtain and the way engineers generally are able to solve problems is incredibly valuable in a number of industries. Not everyone who majors in engineering is meant to be at a desk all day working as a designer. A large majority of the people I work with are engineers who no longer work for a designer, or never have. Adding a P.E. License to your resume makes you that much more valuable to any company. It increases your potential to earn a higher salary and it increases your ability to pivot career paths if you need or want to. You can work for a designer if that is what your purpose is. But if it's not, there's a big world out there and a ton of opportunities for someone with an engineering major and P.E. License.
About the Author: Alex Berlin

Mr. Berlin has worked in both the design and fabrication industries for 10 years. He has worked at Vigor (previously OIW) for 9 years. Previous experience includes work in commercial fabrication for the solar renewable energy sector, structural design for the commercial and power sectors and seismic analysis and rehabilitation. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Structural Engineering from The University of California, San Diego. He holds a PE License in the State of Oregon.

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