Opening a Civil Engineering Consulting Firm
"I would like to be my own boss."
"I want to be fairly compensated for my qualifications and efforts."
"I cannot take another day of my current position."
If you can relate to any of these sentiments, opening your own engineering consulting firm might be a great option. Whether you're currently employed, between jobs, or retired, now might be an ideal time to make the transition to being self-employed.
1. Providing Autonomy
Many companies or governmental agencies prefer employees to retire while they are still relatively young-between the ages of 55 and 60. An advantage of having your own firm is that you can work as late in life as you would like to. You can choose to work full-time or part-time, set your own hours, and can accept or decline any assignments offered to you. If you are an early riser, you may start the day at 4:00 am and finish by noon or even earlier. Alternately, if you are a night owl, you could start the productive part of your day at 10:00 pm when the house is quiet and the television is off, so you can work productively until 4:00 or 5:00 am. Although working seven days a week is not recommended, some choose to work for four or five hours a day, seven days a week. You might even want to hire employees if your eventual goal is to become a larger firm.
2. Figuring Out How Much to Charge
You may agree to design something and inspect it as needed for a set price. If there is a change in scope, you can add to your original fee. Generally, though, consultants are paid by the hour. The best way to know what to charge is by doing some research or by asking other engineers that you trust how much they bill for similar services. Even small professional interactions like that can help you gain credibility and build mutually beneficial relationships.
3. Working from Home vs. Working in an Office
There are pros and cons of working from an office outside of your home, just as there are pros and cons of working within your own home. A disadvantage of working from home is you may have traffic many times during the day if you conduct meetings at your home office. While your neighbors may be friendly and supportive, they may not appreciate the congestion caused by a steady stream of vehicles. Therefore, it may be best to hold meetings someplace other than your home.
4. Obtaining the Proper Insurance
Being self-employed, you would be wise to obtain errors and omissions insurance to protect yourself from getting sued. This type of insurance provides specialized liability protection against damages not covered by conventional liability insurance. It protects you and your company from liability if a client were to file a lawsuit over careless actions, mistakes, or omissions made while conducting business that resulted in a monetary loss. If you see clients in your home, you will need business insurance as well.
5. Selecting Projects
As a consultant, you must have experience performing the tasks you are asked to perform. You must be organized and skilled to be both the engineer and approver. Your accurate assessment of your abilities will prompt you to accept assignments that you are qualified to perform. While big projects are great, small ones are fine, too, and may be more manageable. You may want to leave the big projects to the large engineering and construction companies. Don't be afraid to say no.
6. Establishing Training Protocols
As you get your business off the ground, establishing a regular human performance improvement (HPI) training protocol for yourself and other employees (if applicable) could be beneficial. HPI is a strategy for improving performance and outcomes and can include training as well as considering causes for problems beyond knowledge and skill gaps. Everyone in an organization could benefit from a defined HPI program, which will enhance morale and result in fewer mistakes and accidents.
It is important for consultants and their staff to receive ongoing training to stay current with new technology and new industry practices. Engineers, architects, and landscape architects can easily become consultants assuming they have the appropriate licenses.
7. Hiring Staff
Many people who open consulting firms may be the only person in the firm and may use other personnel services such as freelance drafters. There are disadvantages to using freelancers. You may have a rush job, and your regular draftsman or graphic artist may be busy for the next week, so they cannot help you. If you have an employee, you can quickly direct them to undertake the needed assignment. Also, because they would not be full-time employees, freelancers may not understand the nuances of how your firm operates.
One disadvantage of being your boss and possibly not having a team (at least initially) is that you do not have a manager who can review your work or give you performance appraisals and bonuses. It is important to develop a good rapport with your clients in order to improve your credibility and the chances of being referred for future jobs.
9. Other Suggestions
It is good to obtain the services of a bookkeeping, payroll, and tax service, especially if you are inexperienced in these areas. You should also evaluate your own physical condition to determine whether performing physical tasks is suitable for you. There are risks associated with working onsite, so if this type of work is not for you, an office job might be more suitable. You could enlist the services of an inspector if one is needed.
Only accept assignments with which you are fully familiar. Do not deplete your resources. If your firm consists of only one or two engineers plus a small staff, you will not have the time or confidence to design a $10 million shopping center. You can negotiate deadlines, though.
One way to garner work is to get on acceptable municipality, county, or branches of the state government, bidders lists. The requirement to become an accepted bidder may be easier than you think!
Keep in mind that when you establish yourself as the owner of a business, you become the president, manager, and engineer for your projects. It could be helpful to talk to other engineers in similar positions to get their firsthand experience and advice. Make a list of pros and cons to help determine if this career move is right for you.