University Programs

Students Connecting with Industry Sessions: Virtual Edition


AISC is pleased to present a virtual edition of Students Connecting with Industry Sessions (SCIS)! This event features five industry professionals sharing their career experiences and professional insights at this particularly unique and challenging time. Join our candid conversation with these accomplished individuals to hear their career advice and personal perspectives in this live panel discussion. The panelists were unable to answer all of the audience questions we received for the live 60-minute event, however they have provided their written responses to these questions further below.

  • Date: 05/19/2020
  • PDH Credits: 0


Bradley J. Dillman, PE; Shelley Finnigan, SE; Benjamin Harber, AIA, PMP; Brian Quinn, PE; Natalie Tse, SE


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Bradley J. Dillman


Bradley J. Dillman, PE, is the Vice President of Engineering for High Steel Structures.


Shelley Finnigan


Shelley Finnigan, SE, is the Global Technical Sales Engineer and Head of Technical Sales & Marketing for the Americas at ArcelorMittal.

Benjamin Harber


Benjamin Harber, AIA, PMP, is a Senior Project Manager at CDM Smith.

Brian Quinn


Brian Quinn, PE, is the President of SE Solutions, LLC / SE Impact.


Natalie Tse


Natalie Tse, SE, is a Project Manager at Tipping Structural Engineers.


Unanswered Questions -- Answered!

Not all of the questions submitted to our panelists could be answered during the live 60-minute event.  Following the event, the panelists provided written responses to these unanswered questions, which can be viewed below.

Connect with Natalie, Brad and Brian on LinkedIn to continue the conversation!

1. What can we do as students to start developing our careers?

Take advantage of any free learning opportunities--webinars, seminars, open houses, etc. Attend industry events when possible---dinner meetings, conferences, etc. Become active in the local chapter of ASCE. -- Brad

Get involved in events where you can connect with practicing structural engineers to get their advice (i.e. Student Steel Bridge Competition, AISC Steel Conference, SEA / SEI events).  See if you can find a practicing structural engineer willing to be a mentor. – Brian

I strongly recommend getting into the practice of drawing elements in 2D and 3D to build your spatial awareness, develop drawing skills, and gain an understanding of how building elements and structures come together. These skills will prove to be important not only in the design process, but also when the project is in construction. A general grasp of sequencing and tolerances is an important part of your growth as an engineer. If you have the opportunity, consider participating in one of the many student design competitions. There are rewards beyond the more obvious ones, including innovation, teamwork, and communication.

If there is a particular material, design or analysis method, structural system, or professional topic that you're interested in, consider contributing to at least one professional committee. There are opportunities to gain technical competence, build a network of cohorts and mentors, enhance your reputation, and contribute to the advancement of the profession. Getting involved in a local, state, or national technical or nontechnical professional organization also helps you stay up-to-date with new projects, and innovative technologies, current trends, and relevant events, and discussions in the design/construction industry. -- Natalie

2. What advice do you have for building soft skills early in my career?

Explore different methods of communication. Understand that each client or consultant has unique preferences for each situation. Learn when to pick up the phone or set up a video conference call, or when it makes more sense to send an email.

Consider finding opportunities to develop presentation or public speaking skills, technical writing, synthesis, management, teamwork and organizational skills. All of these will come in handy throughout the life of your career. In addition, time management and task prioritization are both quite an important tools to develop early in your career.  -- Natalie

Take advantage of or make opportunities to lead teams, or at minimum, participate in group projects. Communicate regularly and often with teams in which you work. Solicit feedback on your written work. Consider reading some articles/books on communication, active listening, leadership, etc. Find a mentor or someone you feel does this well, and solicit their counsel. -- Brad

If you already have a position, then use or create opportunities to talk to professionals in the field, work in teams, utilize industry resources, participate in organizations and committees or volunteer, and pick up the phone and talk to people, or meet them in person, as much as possible. I would define soft skills as having both verbal and non-verbal attributes. You can read about conflict resolution, running meetings, etc. and watch for examples of public speakers that you appreciate and try to understand why they are able to effectively communicate.  Remember that you will develop your own style eventually and will have more techniques to cope with diverse scenarios the more experiences you have.  Also, from personal experience, early in your career you may have more challenging interactions with bosses, co-workers, clients, etc. as you are establishing yourself.  While this can be very frustrating sometimes and you may have to deal with people that are unpleasant, remember this is an opportunity as well.  This is a great time to try different techniques for de-escalating conflict, being confident without being arrogant, and being organized. As you develop in your career, and even early on you are developing your own brand. -- Ben

3. What advice would you give to recent civil engineering graduates who want to pursue their career as a structural engineer?

Congratulations! Take pride in this first step in your professional career. If you haven't already started your job search, first, identify the region(s) in which you most strongly desire to reside, especially if you're not planning on staying in the city or town where you completed your degree or close to home. Keep your LinkedIn profile and professional resume or curriculum vitae up to date with all relevant skills and experiences. When reaching out to prospective employers, always take the time to address your letter or email to a specific person, and tailor the content and style in the letter of interest to the firm or recipient. Be sure to not only highlight what sets you apart from your peers and what you have to offer, but also consider sharing what draws you to that firm.

If you're having a difficult time securing employment opportunities during this climate consider finding alternate jobs that build skill sets that you know will benefit your career in structural engineering, enhancing your ability to function and grow. Consider your strengths, talents, hobbies and interests and find an employment opportunity that will bring your fulfillment and positive experiences. You may consider offering your services to a local structural firm as an unpaid intern.

Consider requesting informational interviews with practicing professionals to gain a better understanding of what skills will be important in your career development.

In each situation, put your best foot forward.  Treat each person you meet with respect, show enthusiasm to listen and learn, and be prepared to tell your story, highlighting your greatest passions. – Natalie

4. What are the technical skills required to be successful as a structural engineer?

This may be obvious, but competence and general proficiency in vertical and lateral analysis are all important at the start of your career. It's important to be cognizant of your areas of improvement and gain breadth and capacity in most design materials.

As you start to gain more experience in design, analysis, and construction, you'll learn the importance of lateral thinking in solving problems for your clients and other consultants on the team.  -- Natalie

This can vary quite a bit based upon who you are working for.  Ask the company you work for what are the most important ones for you to focus on.  But, don't forget about developing your communication and people skills also.  – Brian

5. Which software should structural engineering students learn?

This depends on what field of structural engineering you are getting into - buildings, bridges, forensics, etc.  Feel free to contact me directly.  I worked in structural software for 12 years. – Brian

6. What was the best/worst decision you made while in school?

Best decision - Attempting to maximize my investment in my education--double majored, had three internships in three different areas within Civil Engineering; participated in a sport (crew/rowing) having no prior experience in that sport.

Worst decision - Was very focused on academics and on excelling in academics. This is not necessarily bad, but in doing so, I missed many cultural and social opportunities and experiences that were readily available on campus and in the surrounding city.  -- Brad

Best decisions were to study abroad for a year and to take several classes outside my primary discipline.  Worst decision in retrospect was having the same major for both undergraduate and graduate.  I now wish I would have had a more diverse background. Additionally, I wish I would have focused on the soft skills and built up my network of future colleagues at that time.  You can/and will be doing that after you graduate, but it's always easier to have as many contacts as possible.  -- Ben

7. Could you describe the transition from student life to the real-life graduate engineer? And, what is your advice to handle the change and to adapt to new culture?

You may be pushing your comfort zone during your first few interactions and discussion with clients and other project team members. It does take time to learn how to work with and communicate well with people outside of your firm. Try to be aware of the priorities for each team player in each situation, and interaction. Consider getting feedback from your advisors and managers on how you can contribute more to a project during client meetings.

Remember that engineering isn't JUST about crunching numbers and producing a set of beautiful calculations. A big part of your growth will be in translating your calculations into a comprehensive set of construction documents, i.e. plans, elevations, details, with well-coordinated references. At every stage in the life of your projects, consider how you're going to organize your drawings to create a narrative of how the pieces come together. Trust your own instincts and seek advice from more experienced individuals in your office to gain skills and confidence. Don't forget to have fun. Revel in the learning and collaboration in the design process. -- Natalie

My comment is from working mainly with new graduate engineers on my projects.  I would say that some of the skills translate well, such as the ability to find answers, and be self-driven to grow. The biggest changes, depending on your program and where you will be working may be the pace, the need to work in a team environment, remembering that the projects and profitability are important to the success of the firm, and that you need to be responsible for your own career development.  Also, while it may seem small, a big change is not having a set vacation or break during the year, and not having much time off initially. -- Ben

8. When working with a new employee, what qualities and skills make them successful and valuable to the company?

It is very important to come to work with a positive attitude, show a good work ethic, treat EVERYONE with respect and contribute in positive ways to the work environment. Take time to get to know your peers and show your interests and passions outside of engineering. When it comes to project-related work, it's important to pay attention to the details but also to take a few steps back and look at the big picture. What are the critical or sensitive areas within the project or with a specific client or user/occupant? How are you doing with the overall budget and with respect to the current phase?

Be aware of your own strengths and areas of improvement, and seek constructive criticism on a regular basis from your managers and principals. For technical-related tasks, it is important to distinguish between situations when it's better to "figure things out on your own" or to ask a question from a manager. In some situations, it is better to exercise independent learning, but oftentimes, it's important to request resources, such as design examples, to be more efficient with your time and to expedite the learning process. I know I definitely appreciate working with engineers who take initiative in their own continued professional development. At the same time, it is important to be respectful of project budgets. Younger engineers need to exercise good judgement on when they're "overthinking" a problem or situation, and thus seek guidance from a more senior engineer.

I do also recommend taking the time to read the code and design guides that explain the importance or reason for requirements or exceptions. When tackling each design problem, try to understand the importance or function of each element to the structural system, vertically and laterally, and whether it plays a role in stability.  – Natalie

In addition to versatility and a drive to learn/improve as noted in the prior question, honesty and integrity are paramount. Strong teams are built on trust. Self-motivation is critical--look for the next assignment, dig for the solutions, develop recommendations. If unsure of an answer, seek counsel after developing a possible solution or a path to a possible solution. Don't seek counsel to be given the solution.  – Brad

9. Do you ever take into account the environmental impact of the materials you use in your projects?

There are many ways that structural engineers can impact sustainability and long term effects on the built environment. I think it's important to take the time, early in your career, to understand the benefits and tradeoffs of each material and system type. For example, why would you choose to use a braced frame system over a moment frame system? When would it make more sense to use a moment frame, despite the higher construction costs?

Gaining sufficient breadth of understanding in sustainability will improve your ability to communicate to and connect with your clients, and thus may give you an advantage over your peers without this knowledge. -- Natalie

Yes.  This is very important to me.  I like to think about the overall lifecycle impacts.  If a material needs to be mined, or is very energy intensive it may be something to think twice about, but if it lasts much longer and it can be fully recycled then this may shift the balance.  Additionally, if a material is local there is less transportation.  I look at the impacts of base materials, coatings, and if it's an international or even a domestic project I look at where the materials are sourced from for environmental compliance.  – Ben

10. What changes do you foresee for the future in your business due to the pandemic?

For the immediate future, there will likely be an impact to the state and municipal governments due to lower sales and gas taxes.  Additionally, in the short term there are effects on urban transportation such as roads and transit.  The need for "brick and mortar" retail is continuing to fade, and I would anticipate fewer companies requiring all of their employees to work full time in offices which should reduce some demand for office buildings and some high rise residential.   I would see continuing opportunities in federal spending, and critical infrastructure such as water, energy (depending on the type), data centers, and freight distribution.  – Ben

The pandemic has challenged our profession to adapt quickly to a unique set of limitations. We have learned to accept remote work as the daily norm and have found creative ways to be flexible, remain engaged with our project responsibilities, and stay connected with our co-workers despite the social distancing requirements. Very quickly, we have learned how to improve communications with each other and others outside the firm. The pandemic has taught us the importance of good leadership and regular communication. Mandated remote work has changed the perspective of many who had dismissed flex time and work from home. Many firm leaders will be reviewing their policies and have found ways to develop trust in staff to conscientiously do their work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had tremendous impacts on individuals, groups, and businesses at a scale that we have never seen before. It has brought attention to our interdependence and vulnerabilities regionally, nationally, and globally. As we emerge from this experience, it is important to learn from the challenges and develop systems to protect the economic health of the business and professional community. It is important to understand what strategies will help minimize scarring, boost demands and plan for recovery. During this time, we have developed a greater sense of community, and learned to face hardship with resourcefulness, compassion and strength. I am hopeful that this experience has brought us a new meaning to teamwork, creativity and resilience. -- Natalie

11. Are new engineers at risk for layoffs as repercussions of a jilted economy arise? Besides making a good impression and being a productive, focused team member, what tips do you have for securing your place in the firm, if so?

Engineers who are early in their career during economic downturns may be at a slightly higher risk of getting laid off, than someone with more years of experience. However, there is no "safe" position. It's important to show your commitment to the firm you're working at. Connect with your peers and show passion and dedication in the work that you do. During these times, it's important to focus on the service you're providing to the client and to your managers and firm leaders, and to continue to produce quality work.

Take the time to back-check your work for inconsistencies or spelling errors before presenting them to your managers. Make good use of their time and do your best to communicate what tasks you're working on, when expectations have not been met, or you may need more time to complete your assigned tasks.

Do regular check-ins with your managers to ensure you are making continued progress in each task or assignment. The conversations you have during these check-ins will help you in building trust with your managers and the leaders of the firm. – Natalie

Yes; new engineers are at risk, but so are engineers and managers at mid and upper levels. It is not always a "last in, first out" policy. Regarding tips for securing your place, of utmost importance is quickly assessing what is important to the specific firm at which you are employed. This may differ from firm to firm. Generally speaking, though, versatility is critical. Be open to and seek opportunities to learn a variety of skills. This makes you marketable and valuable, and facilitates moving between areas within a firm. Display a drive to learn, grow and develop your weaknesses. Someone with a "long runway" (a lot of potential) is certainly valuable.  – Brad

Well, it can go both ways.  New engineers are paid less than more experienced engineers, so some firms see this as a benefit and less impact. Firms usually maintain a mix of employee levels, even if the overall number may change.  Additionally, some firms look at who is assigned to projects at the moment.  If someone has been assigned to a multi-year project, the funding source is stable, and they are well liked/valued on the team then this is a good position to be in.

 If you are in a smaller firm, there is likely a small management structure and they likely were directly involved in your hiring and performance reviews.  In a large firm I would definitely recommend working to build "advocates".  If senior staff with decision making power know you and value you, you are in a much better position. Look for ways to develop unique expertise and long term projects as well. – Ben

Yes, but this is not isolated to new engineers.  Work as hard as possible, ask your supervisor what you can do to help the company achieve their goals, be easy to manage, listen intently to managers, work on improving all your skills.  There are many free or low cost options.  Listen to motivational speakers, read books.  – Brian

12. What advice do you have for international students who have a time limit to get to a job during this Pandemic?

I would think about what your unique skills may be.  This may be unique past experiences.  Additionally, if you speak different first languages, or have unique cultural experiences, you may try to think about how you could work for an American firm or agency and bring value to them.  -- Ben

Cast a wide net, and try many things.  Connect with practicing structural engineers in the US who are from the country originally as you.  Have a great intro / cover letter.  Make sure your resume is excellent, and have others review it.  Inquire with as many companies as possible.  – Brian

13. Not long after my Geotech internship was over, I realized that I want to do Structural Engineering, but don't have any work experience in the field. Is it better to apply for internships or entry-level jobs in my field of interest?

I recommend applying for the entry level positions. Many undergraduates do not have work experience in their field of study, so I would not let that be a deterrent to applying for entry level positions in Structural Engineering. – Brad

Would recommend applying for everything you are interested in and evaluate your options (if you have the flexibility in time, financial, etc.)  Also, remember that in many cases you may not be starting in your "dream job."  Try to evaluate each opportunity and think about what/if any value you see that can help you in your career. Sometimes just having a good environment and good mentor is a reasonable first step as long as you don't forget about your long term goals. -- Ben

I recommend applying to entry level positions in structural.  – Brian

14. Do you have any advice for PhD students focused on going into industry rather than academia?

Carefully assess the area of the industry or the firms of interest to ensure that you can capitalize on the expertise that you have developed through the Doctorate program, and that it is valued in the area or firm you are considering. – Brad

Each situation is different, so feel free to contact me directly to discuss further.  – Brian

15. I am a PhD student in structural mechanics. I also have working experience in structural steel design. In your opinion, what are open areas for research and development of structural steel from industry's point of view?

Within the transportation industry, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) is one of the primary entities leading innovation and advancements through research. I suggest becoming involved in the TRB and finding a committee that best aligns with your interests. – Brad