Project Engineer Career Path: What’s After?


I became a project engineer when I was 23 without knowing how my career path will go. After 5 years, I became a project manager, and here is what I want to share with you.

Becoming a project engineer, you are mostly working in the construction industry. Your main responsibility is to execute the installation work at the construction site including the testing and commissioning of the system installed and complete the project before a specified date.

Depending on your experience, skills, knowledge, and preferences, you can choose to advance to different positions and focuses on a different aspect of a construction project.

What’s After Project Engineer?

As a project engineer, there are different paths to advance your career. Each path focuses on a different aspect of a project.

First Thing: Become a Senior Project Engineer

After working as a project engineer for about 2-3 years, you are usually promoted to a senior position first. You are often assigned multiple projects, some already have a junior project engineer in charge. As a senior project engineer, you need to guide the junior project engineers in every aspect.

A senior project engineer is more mature in handling both technical work and people relationships which is a very important skill at the construction site. In addition, a senior project engineer is both faster and more complete when it comes to solving a problem.

Top 3 skills of a senior project engineer:

  • Handling people – A senior project engineer communicates well with people. He/she understand what other people are trying to say and solves their queries precisely. A senior project engineer stays composed when other people become emotional so that he/she is focusing on solving the problem and not creating personal conflicts.
  • Communication skill – A senior project engineer speaks confidently and clearly in front of people such that a firm and understandable message can be received by other people. He/she also reports the right things to the right people.
  • Technical knowledge – A senior project engineer knows more about the standards and good practices of installation work so that the amount of rework is reduced and the quality of the installation work is improved.

A junior project engineer has no experience in dealing with almost everything. So, a senior project engineer can guide his/her junior on what to focus on, how to handle certain things, and avoid big mistakes. However, we don’t encourage senior project engineers to spoon-feed their juniors as it slows down their growth.

Main Path: Become a Project Manager

Typically, a project engineer will choose to advance to the project manager role. The advancement from a project engineer to a project manager varies heavily based on skills, technical knowledge, and the company.

Stepping Stone: Assistant Project Manager

Often, you’ll be promoted to an assistant project manager first before becoming a project manager. As the job title suggests, your main task is to assist the project manager in every aspect.

An assistant project manager often handles as many projects as the project manager does. He/she reduces the weight on the shoulder of the project manager so that the project manager can focus on things that are higher in value (high impact to the project).

How long you’ll be working as an assistant project manager is depending on how much work you can take over from the project manager. After all, you’ll soon become the project manager and you’ll need to know how to do all the things that the project manager is currently doing.

Project Manager

As a project manager, everything (both good and bad) that happens in a project is on you. You’ll take the blames if the project is delayed or over budget. Conversely, you’ll also take the credits if the project is ahead of schedule and budget. Project managers are expected to be excellent in computer and presentation skills.

The project manager is arguably the single most important person in a project. He/she needs to complete a project on time and within budget, at the same time meeting the required standards and quality. Besides, he/she needs to know about legal, contracts, authorities, and regulations.

Project manager chairing a site meeting

A project manager has many common tasks as other managers such as the sales manager and finance manager. As a manager, your main focus is to make sure everyone under you are doing at their best state of themselves. In another word, you need to take care of the people under you so that they are working as efficiently as possible.

Top 3 skills of a project manager:

  • People and social skills – A project manager communicates with many people on a daily basis. Not only he/she need to deliver the message precisely, he/she also needs to convince and persuade other people so that he/she gets the necessary agreements and approvals to maintain the schedule of a project.
  • Attitude and mindset – A project manager deal with multiple problems every day at the construction site. He/she need to handle each and every problem with the right attitude and mindset to fill the site with positive energy so that everyone working with the project maintain high productivity and motivation.
  • Strong personality – A project manager meets with different kind of people and receive both praises and criticisms as he/she is sitting on the highest position. He/she need to developed a strong personality that can help him/her sailed through everything and complete the project on time.

A project manager usually spending most of his/her time working from the office rather than at the construction site. However, it depends on the project. After working for a few years, a project manager can be promoted to senior project manager where he/she will be leading a few project managers.

Second Path: Becoming a Construction Manager

Project engineers who enjoy working at the construction site, dealing with work arrangements can choose to go for the construction manager position. Before that, you may be working as an assistant construction manager.

The construction manager often has a higher authority than the project manager when it comes to site work arrangements. While the project manager is responsible for the schedule of the project, the construction manager is responsible to allocate resources precisely so that the site works are efficient (fast and low cost).

Construction manager conducting a briefing at site

As a construction manager, you’ll need an even stronger personality than the project manager as you are dealing with supervisors, local and foreign workers, supervisors, and engineers from other trades. Often, at the construction site, people can misbehave, gives a bad attitude, and use vulgar words. When the project engineers are unable to deal with them, the construction manager serves as the man who gets the things done.

Construction managers often don’t need to be excellent in computer skills but people and social skills as they spend almost all of their working hours at the construction site.

Alternative Career Path after Project Engineer

If you are not interested to become a project manager or construction manager, some of the alternatives are as follow:

  • Sales engineer – As a project engineer, you’ll understand more about the construction site and the actual application of the equipment more than anyone else. This will give you an edge if you choose to become a sales engineer. However, sales techniques need to be developed.
  • Design engineer – As a project engineer, you essentially are proving that if the system you’re installing is well designed by the design engineer. Thus, if you become a design engineer, you’ll know which designs are good and which are not practical. But, you’ll need to learn the engineering standards and perhaps, get yourself certified as a professional engineer.
  • Professional drafter – As a project engineer, you’ll have knowledge of both the construction site condition and practical designs. Hence, you can apply both aspects into your drafting to produce quality drawings that other drafters simply lack the experience to produce.
  • Subcontractor – As a project engineer, you’ll know people working in the construction industry. Thus, you can leverage your network and get to work under their company as a subcontractor. However, it means that you are doing your own business and it can fail.

If you already working as a project engineer for a few years and want to get rid of the construction site, I will advise you to switch to a position where you can leverage at least some of your skills and experiences in order to stay competitive.

Is Project Engineer a Difficult Job?

If you ask me, I’ll say project engineer is a difficult job, especially for introverts. I’m an introvert. I was grinding through my days when I was working as a junior project engineer. However, the sense of job fulfillment and achievements keeps me motivated and push forward.

Working at the construction site, be prepared to have people bully you, fooling you around, and disrespect you, especially if you go in with not much confidence. However, if you are focused, willing to learn, and taking one step at a time, you’ll get rewarded handsomely.

Being a project engineer, most of your stress is coming from people at the construction site, not much from your boss and office people. If you are lucky, you’ll get a good company where your colleagues are very supportive to you. It’s really isn’t that bad.

Nevertheless, nothing comes easy. The more difficulty you face, the faster you grow. Make your choice.

How Much Money Can a Project Engineer Make?

The salary of a project engineer can be found anywhere online. But, if you are interested in my opinion, here is what I know:

PositionTotal Working Experience Total Salary Range (Basic+Allowances)
Project Engineer0 – 3 yrsRM2,800 – RM3,400
Senior Project Engineer3 – 5 yrsRM4,000 – RM5,000
Asst. Project Manager5 – 8 yrsRM5,000 – RM6,500
Asst. Construction Mgr5 – 8 yrsRM3,500 – RM5,500
Project Manager8 – 12 yrsRM6,000 – RM12,000
Construction Manager8 – 12 yrsRM6,000 – RM12,000
Senior Project Manager /
Senior Construction Mgr
12 yrs ++RM8,000 – RM16,000
or more

Is Project Engineer a Good Career?

To me, a good career for you means you have passion for the work and you enjoy your works, not necessarily all the time but most of the time, and you are proud of your result.

Even so, to do well as a project engineer, it is better to have a fairly strong personality, can talk to people confidently, active, and have high energy. However, you can learn all of them just like I did.

Being a project engineer, you’ll be facing all kinds of people and problems and that is good, in my opinion, because you can have a broad view of the world. The more people you meet and the more problem you solve, the more opportunity lies ahead of you.

One thing I know is there is no perfect career. There is a movie waiting to be directed by you and the people around you. It’s up to you how will the story of the movie be like. It’ll be a boring one or an adventurous one? I hope you make the decision and I look forward to your success.

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Design Engineer Starter Pack

Many junior engineers don't get enough guidance and support from their seniors and managers. I believe junior engineers should have a chance to gain access to high-level design skills and tools. So, kick start your HVAC design journey with seven (7) calculators, five (5) diagrams and three (3) charts.

Yu Chang Zhen

Hi, I hope my article was helpful to you. I'm actually quite enjoy working in the air conditioning industry. Maybe it is because Malaysia is a very hot country!

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