9 Skills of a Good Project Engineer

Project engineer is a popular job among fresh graduates. Project engineers earn relatively higher than other engineering jobs. So, what skills are needed to become a project engineer and how to be a good project engineer?

I started my first job straight as a project engineer because it seems like a cool job to me. Furthermore, the compensation was fairly good. Also, I get to move around sites rather than sitting in the office.

As I got promoted and become a senior project engineer and eventually a project manager, I noticed that some skills are essential and important for a project engineer to become a good project engineer.

1. Organizational Skill

Project engineers need to submit, follow up and get approval for many drawings and documents. Approved drawings and documents are often kept inside hardcover folders.

However, good project engineers take a step further to scan them into softcopy and store them inside Google Drive, iCloud Drive or other cloud platforms so that they can access them whenever they need and wherever they are.

At first, I always bring A0 size drawings and a bunch of documents along with me during site visits. After a few years of mess, I only need to bring what is necessary. The rest of the documents I can always access through my phone or laptop.

Apart from organizing softcopy files, sorting and labeling hardcopy files are equally important. After all, not all files can be stored inside a computer. Good project engineers are able to find what they are looking for in less than a minute.

I've seen many project engineers spending hours searching for important files such as approved materials, certificates and letters. They are essentially being unproductive and so, how can they be considered good project engineers?

2. Technical Know-How

Project engineers are required to read drawings, do calculations and sometimes do design works. Working on security cameras may not need you to have much technical knowledge but if you are going for the HVAC system, you'll need to be good at technical know-how.

An HVAC system consists of many elements such as air conditioners, mechanical fans, pipes, valves, compressors, copper tubes, cables, supports, ducts, grilles, filters, motors, water, airflow, temperature, pressure and so on.

Good project engineers have good technical knowledge of the things they are working on. For example, if you are responsible for the installation of air conditioners, you should know how air conditioners work. If they are not working, you should know why and how to troubleshoot.

Many people may argue that they don't need to know how to troubleshoot air conditioners because it is not their job but technicians' job. However, not all technicians are experts and if you can't help in some way, how do you expect them to follow your order?

Good project engineers use their technical knowledge to get things resolved quickly rather than waiting for others to solve the problem. Nevertheless, they still work within their scope of work.

Although project engineers ideally should know technically as much as possible, it is not necessary for them to have deep technical knowledge. However, having deep technical knowledge will expedite your career advancement.

3. Computer Skill

Project engineers use the computer more than anyone else in a construction project. They use a computer to write letters, prepare shop drawings, prepare submissions and working on project schedules.

Most project engineers have basic computer skills such as using Excel, Word, Outlook and Gmail. However, good project engineers are synchronizing their work with supervisors using Google Docs, Sheets and Slides.

Furthermore, good project engineers know how to use Microsoft Project for work schedules rather than using Excel like most project engineers do.

When I was working as a project engineer, I've seen some project engineers don't know how to use a printer. They have no idea how to connect a printer, let alone working efficiently with a computer.

Many project engineers seem to work with a computer all the time but if you look closer, most of them are wasting time on figuring out how to use the software and functions in the computer.

Good project engineers can find a digital file within seconds. They often have several Excel calculators ready for them to do any design checking work when necessary. Furthermore, they know how to use the function available in Excel and Google Sheet to make their work more automated and efficient.

4. People Skill

Project engineers are required to deal with the people on the construction site. There are all kinds of people on the construction site, ranging from kind and helpful to aggressive and arrogant.

Good project engineers have good people skills which they can maintain a good relationship with almost everyone on the construction site. They know how to talk and react to different kinds of people involved in their work.

Many project engineers tend to fight or build bad relationships with the people on the construction site. Some of them couldn't keep their emotion and ego, resulting in having pointless arguments with the clerk of work and client.

Good project engineers know what other people want to hear. They'll reorganize the same information and present it differently so that they leave a good impression on their client.

After I become a senior project engineer, I always tell my juniors to kept their emotion and discuss with other people appropriately rather than keep making assumptions about others so that things can move and get resolved quickly.

5. Communication Skill

Project engineers are required to write letters, prepare shop drawings, send in RFIs and obtain approvals from the consultant. They need to be able to present the information in a way that is easy for other people to understand.

Good project engineers are said to have good communication skills because whatever they say, other people can understand fairly quickly. Contrarily, bad project engineers often misinterpret information and conclusion.

Communication skills not only referring to speaking skills but also writing skills and presenting information in general. In another word, if people can understand what you are talking about, then you have good communication skills.

However, you yourself have good communication skills is not enough. Good project engineers have empathy in others and thus, they know that the people they are dealing with have weak communication skills. Thus, they will adjust themselves to speak the same language with them so that things can be discussed and resolved as intended.

Furthermore, good project engineers use sketches and diagrams to illustrate and convey the message they want other people to receive precisely. Mistakes in the construction site are very costly and good project engineers know how to make sure that other people understand what they are talking about.

Nevertheless, if other people choose to misinterpret information given to them, good project engineers will not argue with them because they have good people skills. Instead, they'll go by the law and contract.

6. Legal and Contract

Project engineers are working with legal and contract all the time. Most project engineers are working in a subcontracting company which projects that are working on in accordance with PAM Contract 2006.

Good project engineers read and understand legal and contractual matters. They write good letters to protect the company they are working in from legal issues.

When I was working as a project engineer, other project engineers from the same construction site often discuss and confirm works verbally, resulting in poor records and work not entitled to claim from their client.

Many people working in construction sites don't know much about legal and contract. They may verbally instruct you to proceed with the work despite it is inappropriate.

Good project engineers combine their people skills and contractual skills and take initiative to issue a confirmation of verbal instruction (CVI) to let the people who issue instruction verbally sign and be responsible. Otherwise, the company they are working in may suffer from losses due to unofficial instruction.

Moreover, good project engineers kept records of delays caused by others. They know that these records are important when it comes to requesting an extension of time (EOT). They understand how the legal process works for the given contract.

7. Discipline

Project engineers having many meetings and discussion sessions to attend. Besides, they also need to schedule their time for work inspections and site walks.

Good project engineers are disciplined. They attend meetings promptly and sometimes, arriving early so that they can build relationships with other people involved in the project.

Site supervisors, technicians and workers often don't have good discipline. They are always late to work, not finishing their job on time and giving many excuses that are sometimes hard to accept.

As project engineers are leading site supervisors, technicians and workers at the construction site, they need to have good discipline so that they can gain respect from their subordinates.

Good project engineers create a penalty system for the people under them who are not behaving well and have good discipline. They'll get rid of indiscipline workers to ensure that their team is productive and efficient.

8. Self-Motivated

Project engineers have to deal with all sorts of problems on the construction site. Some of the problems are caused by their own mistake and some are due to the fault of their workers.

Good project engineers accept their mistakes and move on quickly so that they can stay on top of the situation. Furthermore, they help their team to regain confidence and recover immediately in order to complete the project on time.

Mistakes are not uncommon on the construction site. Many junior project engineers tend to be caught in the emotion and get depressed thereby stop working with their team and ultimately affecting the site work progress.

Good project engineers are focusing on getting the work done. They put aside personal emotion and concentrate on resolving their mistakes and working on recovery plans, making sure that their mistakes don't propagate further.

9. Strong Personality

Project engineers work under stress all the time. They have a schedule to follow and a deadline to meet. If they missing a schedule or two, their boss may call them up and seek answers.

Good project engineers stay strong even when there is extreme pressure on their shoulders. They understand that they can't fall down because their team needs them to make decisions and strive to complete the project on time.

During the final stage of a project, the client may exert a great amount of pressure on everyone working on the construction project because they'll need to pay a penalty to purchasers if the project is delayed.

Good project engineers understand how other people behave when stressed. They put aside their emotion and continue to work on the important things which is the site work progress.

Many junior project engineers often break down under stress. They silently avoid going to the construction site and hardly answering any calls from the people involved in the project. By doing so, they are causing further delay.

Good project engineers have strong personalities. They speak confidently with everyone including arrogant subcontractors and rude foreign workers so that they can keep things moving.

Final Thought

Throughout my working experience as a project engineer, I learn that you need to develop the 9 skills of a good project engineer listed above in the correct order as below:

  1. Discipline
  2. People Skill
  3. Self-Motivated
  4. Computer Skill
  5. Communication Skill
  6. Technical Know-How
  7. Legal and Contract
  8. Organizational Skill
  9. Strong Personality

It was hard to me in the beginning as a project engineer. So, I created the Project Engineer Starter Pack to help junior project engineers like you and others to start strong. Check it out. You can use the tools included to improve your project engineering skills.

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Yu Chang Zhen

I enjoy working on air conditioners and ventilation fans because Malaysia is a very hot country.

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