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How to Become an Engineering Project Manager

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Engineering projects require the coordination of many moving parts, and engineering project managers are the maestro of those moving parts, orchestrating on-time, on-budget, safe and successful project delivery. They can work on construction projects, engineering projects, or even IT migrations. And while it’s not what you may first think of when considering engineering marvels like the Hoover Dam, proper planning and execution are just as vital as airtight physics and structural analysis, and it can mean the difference between success and failure.

Most engineering project managers have a strong background in the engineering fundamentals. Without that background, it’s practically impossible to manage complex engineering projects. Whether they want to work in mechanical, chemical, or civil engineering project management, they have a solid understanding of the mechanics and skill sets that undergird such projects. Furthermore, engineering project management has a role of such extreme importance in engineering projects that it may take a decade or more of education and experience before one is selected to lead a project on their own.

The path is long, and routes to becoming an engineering project manager are many, but we have outlined the most linear and comprehensive route possible below. By following our step-by-step guide, aspiring engineering project managers can keep their options open, go beyond the bare minimum, and aim for success in the top echelons of engineering project management. Read on to get started.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Engineering Project Manager

Step One: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, the first thing an aspiring engineering project manager will need to do is obtain a bachelor’s degree, ideally at a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). There are not many undergraduate programs that focus specifically on project management, and the few that do generally neglect the engineering side of the equation. Aspiring engineering project managers should use their undergraduate years to build solid engineering fundamentals in the area they wish to eventually do project management, such as civil engineering.

As an online option, the University of North Dakota offers a BS in civil engineering. Recognized as a top online engineering program by U.S. News & World Report, its students focus on engineering, design, project management, construction, contract administration, technical support, and research. The program consists of 134 credits and includes classes such as chemistry, economic statistics, foundation engineering, engineering economy, and structural mechanics.

For an on-campus option, NYU offers a BS in civil engineering. Strongly practice-oriented, with a heavy emphasis on design, the program is modeled off of ABET’s 11 fundamental outcomes to cover the full range of skills and knowledge necessary for modern engineers. The program consists of 129 credits and includes classes on topics like calculus, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, engineering problem solving, structural analysis, structural design, leadership, business principles, policy, and ethics in civil engineering. Electives are available in subjects such as construction project administration, construction scheduling, and cost estimation.

Step Two: Establish State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

After you have earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, you may be eligible to sit for state licensure. Not all states require engineers to be licensed in order to practice, and the requirements vary from state to state, but precise guidelines can be found on the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) website.

The first step in the licensure process is to pass the fundamentals of engineering (FE) exam. The exam is offered in several subdisciplines, with the civil engineering exam being most relevant for aspiring engineering project managers with a focus in construction engineering. The 110-question exam takes approximately six hours to complete, and a passing score qualifies one as an engineer in training (EIT) or engineering intern (EI). Regardless of the licensure requirements in your state, passing the FE can lead to greater opportunities on your path to becoming an engineering project manager.

Step Three: Obtain a Master’s Degree (9-24 Months)

After you have earned your bachelor’s degree and passed the FE exam, the next step is to obtain a master’s degree. Unlike the undergraduate level, there are plenty of master’s degree programs in engineering project management.

One such program is available at UC Berkeley, which offers an MS in engineering and project management (EPM). The program seeks to marry solid civil engineering fundamentals with innovative leadership strategies. Students take classes in topics such as lean construction concepts, supply chain management, advanced project planning, business fundamentals for engineering, and technology and sustainability. The program consists of 24 credits and may be completed in nine months or more.

Another option is Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, which offers a master of project management (MPM) degree. Students may choose from five sub-specializations: architecture-engineering-construction (AEC) business management, construction management, real estate development, sustainability, and transport management. Students take courses such as managerial finance, project scheduling, project funding, project feasibility analysis, and lean construction. The program may be completed in nine months or more.

It’s also possible to pursue a master’s degree in a more concrete engineering subdiscipline, such as civil engineering, and look for further project management education and experience later on. As an online option, Ohio University offers a master of science in civil engineering (MSCE) that can be completed in five semesters or more. Students take classes in construction planning and scheduling, applied civil engineering statistics, advanced steel design, prestressed concrete design, and in site remediation. The program consists of 60 credits and may be completed entirely online.

Step Four: Gain Work Experience and Pursue Continuing Education (Timeline Varies)

After earning your master’s degree, it’s time to gain some valuable real-world experience. Engineering project management roles carry a huge amount of responsibility, and it likely will not be possible to lead large projects straight out of school. At this stage of their careers, engineering project managers should focus on gaining all the experience they can, putting their fundamental skills to practice and building a resume of successful team projects.

Now is also the right time to gain further education in the area of project management, especially if your master’s degree wasn’t specifically geared towards the subject. And even if it was, adding certified education can give you a better chance of landing project management roles with which to cut your teeth.

One such option is a course in project management for engineers and technical professionals, hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). During the three-day course, students learn to discern between projects, programs, and sub-projects; employ integrated case studies to create deliverables; identify techniques and outputs such as critical path, schedule compression, fast-tracking, and resource leveling; and apply project scheduling concepts such as the Activity Gantt Chart, resource-gram, and histogram.

Another option is Coursera’s specialization in engineering project management. Offered in collaboration with the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, this four-month series covers three areas: initiation and planning; scope, time, and cost management; and risk, quality, teams, and procurement. Students gain a comprehensive understanding of how to manage an engineering project, and those who complete all three areas can simultaneously fulfill all their continuing education requirements for the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification (see step six for more information).

Step Five: Become a Professional Engineer (Four Years)

After gaining four years of professional experience, and having passed the FE exam and earned a master’s degree, you are eligible to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE).

The PE exam, also hosted by the NCEES, has no specialized test for project management, but it does offer an exam in civil engineering, within which one may specialize towards either construction engineering or structural engineering. The 80-question open-book exam takes approximately eight hours to complete. If you earn a passing score, you will be licensed as a professional engineer, which serves as a mark of distinction for an engineering project manager and establishes them as an expert in the technical side of an engineering subdiscipline.

Step Six: Achieve Professional Certification (Timeline Varies)

After you have gained some real-world experience, the next step is to achieve professional certification. Professional certifications specifically dedicated to project management can set you apart and identify you as an expert in this sub-discipline of engineering.

The industry standard for certification is the Project Management Institute (PMI), which offers both the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and Project Management Professional (PMP) certifications.

For those looking to manage larger projects and gain more responsibility, the CAPM establishes your understanding of the fundamental knowledge, terminology, and processes of effective process management through a three-hour, 150-question test. Applicants must have either 1,500 hours of project experience or 23 hours of project management education. Those who successfully earn the CAPM must recertify every five years.

For those looking to validate their competence to lead and direct projects and teams, the PMP is the gold standard, with those who hold it earning an average of 20 percent more than non-holders. This is a certification for experienced project managers who have over 4,500 hours of experience directing or leading projects and at least 35 hours of project management education. Applicants must successfully pass the four-hour, 200-question exam for certification. In order to maintain your PMP, you must earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) every three years.

Helpful Resources for Engineering Project Managers

The world of project management is constantly evolving and in order to keep pace, many engineering project managers choose to join professional societies closely related to their area of specialty. These societies act as a bridge to the larger, global conversation and host conferences, educational resources, and further certifications for engineering project managers, acting as a critical link to the constant learning necessary to be a successful engineering project manager at the top echelons of the industry.

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