When Construction Internships Go Bad…

14June2008

I received the following comment a few days ago from a civil engineering student who had a poor experience during a construction management summer internship. The post is written in a very upfront manner and highlights many of the pitfalls that all companies should look out for with internship programs (team turnover, not engaging the student, no responsibility for the student). Check out my previous posts entitled, “What are students looking for in a construction internship?” and “What are construction students looking for in a job?” for some on the intern ideas I have seen work.

The post follows:

“In what follows, I’m posting my advice (rather longish, sorry) for analytically inclined engineering students. By way of disclaimer, I speak only for myself as an intern at one of the largest general contractors, but I suspect my experience is rather representative of the field as a whole from the prospective of an ambitious engineering student.

Why would someone consider working in construction management? I was early in my civil engineering program interested in all forms of built environment. I accepted the internship offer thinking that to learn the ropes I have to get direct and unmediated exposure to the nitty-gritty of construction. I still believe the best way to test your interest is to dive head first and sweat it out. But for someone in my position, it’d be better to take some technical college classes in building construction, help his neighbor with the addition he’s planning, or better yet take a few years off from school and enroll in a union apprenticeship. If you fear you’ll get behind your peers, think about those in your cohort in school who’ll spend years volunteering for AmeriCorps or Peace Corps. There’s a management part to construction management, but there’s darn little construction, still less engineering involved.

In fact, the one lasting benefit of the internship for me — other than getting a reality check on what construction management is all about — was that the company encourages its office employees (project engineers, estimators, interns) to walk the job-site on a regular basis and not just on their own time. It’s a telling fact though that many of those I shared my trailer with would never even venture into the construction zone finding more comfort in hopping from one meeting to another and rehashing subcontracts. Ok… walk the site you may, but be content with being a sidewalk superintendent. In other words, don’t expect much if any mentorship from field staff. In all fairness, the senior project engineers and managers may be totally willing to give you tips. Unfortunately, they are generally the least informed about the nuts and bolts of the construction process. The surprising and unfortunate fact is that there seems to be a complete disconnect between the field staff (superintendents etc.) and the management ranks — the former have no incentive to mentor the latter who essentially serve as office factotums (”office managers”). Even monthly company training sessions on technical matters of construction (waterproofing etc.) are conducted by PEs and PMs who seem to just regurgitate something they merely learned by rote. Consequently, if you have any previous hands-on experience of the construction site, you’ll find the whole management enterprise sort of devoid of purpose other than making money by getting off the hook by any means necessary.

Working at the company was nothing less than indentured servitude. You’re given ample food, drink, a generous monetary compensation, a little office space. In return, you’ll give up all your waking hours and convert to cubicle dronehood. My impression of long-time career potential at the company is quite pessimistic. I found very little trust among employees. With the exception of a newly hired Project Engineer, I couldn’t get any other of my colleagues to talk to me candidly about their experience. Turnover is comparable to that at a fast-food chain. Among the people I worked with, one of my immediate superiors left during my summer stint, two others left soon after the end of my internship. It’s a far cry from working in tightly knit groups with like-minded engineers on gnarly problems that you’re used to as an engineering student. Incidentally, from my interaction with field employees (tradesmen, superintendents), they appeared quite pleased with their work and compensation as I most likely would’ve been in their position.

As an intern, you’d be a low man on the totem pole anywhere, nothing wrong about it. But there was something fundamentally amiss about my role at the company. I was looked down upon as a pesky nuisance by everyone — rightly so — from subcontractors whom my task was to effectively prevent from communicating directly with architects/engineers to my company’s own concrete workers who probably thought of me as an idle onlooker pestering them with the “not even wrong” sort of questions. The end result is that you will understand nothing about what went into the design and little about what went into its construction (other than learn about an occasional conflict that you happened to submit an RFI on).

I decided to post this as a warning to civil, structural, or mechanical engineering students who might unwittingly succumb to the illusion that there’s something “hands-on” about construction management. In all honesty, your position vis-a-vis construction will be that of an event planner’s assistant’s aide in relation to active participants at a wedding she’s helping to book. I’m aware that some construction management companies have a “field engineer” type of position leading to superintendent in the long run, but I’d be suspicious of any promise of a smooth and proven track. If however you take pride in your professional skillset and aren’t quick to give up your privilege to tinker and invent, you’ve better look elsewhere. Caveat emptor.”

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9 Responses to “When Construction Internships Go Bad…”

  1. Uravashi Says:

    I am also with that student because i think that internship training for management studnt is very necessory and it should in proper manner. Companies should provide a good training to students because it makes the base of students.

  2. constructoblogger Says:

    great post.

    i’m starting my new blog, http://constructoblog.wordpress.com , and this is just the sort of thing i hope to dissect.

    hope you don’t mind me linking to your blog!

    the constructo-blogger

  3. James Cordell Says:

    What was said is so true I am a construction management major. my previous internship was identical to your experience it is sad you would think there would be more mentoring from superiors I mean that is what we are there for

  4. Alex Says:

    I was a CM student 12 years ago and was able to take three internships with a medium sized Civil company. Each experience was different as I was on three different teams. The first summer I learned the most and my Project Manager had me really be hands on with a foreman and superintendent who layed out the site for nine different developments and a train grade separation. Additionally I worked on figuring out cycle times of equipment, did extra work take offs, and managed trucking, etc. I was able to see cofferdams being built and other cool construction…I had so much fun!

    The second summer I was with a totally different set of people on two highway projects and one private development. I learned way less and was almost encouraged by some of the staff to stay away from going into construction. There were 5 engineers and they were very a non conformist group. If you were five minutes late the definitely let you know. The Project Manager was hardly around and when he was his attitude was fairly negative (I learned later his wife had just been diagnosed with cancer so in retrospect I could hardly blame him for being in a bad mood). The Superintendent referred to me a “Funuge” which was short for F#!king New Engineer. Needless to say he didn’t have a lot of time for me and I didn’t get much out of my intership that summer.

    Fairly discouraged I took my third internship which was a new highway project and I was with a well seasoned Area Manager, Project Manager, Superintendent and a New Project Engineer. The team was very goal oriented and very efficient. The team was good at negotiating and controling all aspects of the project. The group wasn’t really close knit one but as a team they knew how to perform. I learned a lot and gained some great knowledge and experience from this group.

    Overall I believe the company mindset and the people you work with will have a ton to do with what you will take from your internship experience.

    Good Luck!

  5. Randy Says:

    I am a Sr. Project Manager with 15 years of construction management experience. My program (University of Cincinnati) required 6 quarters of co-op (paid internship) experience. The experience was instrumental in my professional development and for the most part positive. I can’t say that it was all enjoyable. The environment can be tough, the hours long, and it was often “sink or swim” environment. My experience was quite different than yours in that the professionals I worked with were always willing to mentor me and give me advice.

  6. Ian Says:

    Yeah… . .
    I suspect a lot of civil engineering students have similiar problems. I am actually a Construction Management major, who works full time during the day. I am surprised on a regular basis by people who attend night school with me and work at [gasp] Mcdonald’s, or the local gas station. Prior to becoming an “office [assistant] manager”, I was an ironworker. And let me tell you, things aren’t much different in the field.
    On occasion you will meet someone who wants to teach you, but 99% of the time personality conflicts and self preservation win out, and you are kept in your place. “Don’t worry about why you’re doing it, just do it”, and that’s the bottom line. Eventually after about two to three years, you develop a decent understanding about what you are doing and why.
    Although it would be beneficial to someone in school to perhaps be involved in the actual “construction process”, most of the field decisions are best left to the appropriate people. The tradesmen.
    Unless you intend upon spending several years (and i spent four which is nothing next to some of our foremen) working in the field as a laborer or foreman, you have no business worrying about what’s going on on the ground. Your job is to facilitate communication, and be aware of conflicts. If you choose to be a “construction manager”, and not work primarily as an engineer, your job is business, not engineering. The engineering credentials are useful because they supplement the knowledge that many professionals today developed through years and years of working in the field. How else are you going to know what anyone is talking about?
    My advice to anyone who is attending school to be a construction manager would be to just pay attention. As with any trade associated with the complicated process of producing a structure, open eyes and ears are going to teach you much more than an open mouth.
    And boy was this student right about what the field people think of you, but it’s natural. For one reason or another, construction workers tend to be fairly simple minded. They don’t like authority, especially when you’re years younger than they are. To get their respect you merely have to talk to them respectfully, leave them alone when they are working, and be around long enough for them to recognize your face and know your name.

  7. Mustang Says:

    I’m a second year student at Cal Poly. This past summer, I did an internship with a general contractor. There was another firm performing the CM duties on the project.

    In any case, maybe I just got lucky, but I learned a lot from my internship. Everyone (except for the project engineer, who was a recent grad) was well seasoned. Everyone, including the PE, took their time to help and explain things to me. Both the Superintendent and project manager encouraged me to go out to the field and learn how things were done.

    Like the student in the article mentioned, as an intern I was at the bottom of the pecking order — but isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

    Concerning the CM side of the job, I can see where the letter writing might be coming from. One of their employees walked the site once or twice a day, his bosses maybe once a week. Another one of their employees who dealt with paperwork and correspondence with the owner didn’t go out at all.

    Although I am studying CM, I’m pretty sure I will end up working for a GC when I graduate.

  8. Kwaker Says:

    I am a second year architecture student, and co-op is also a part of my school system. I worked for a large architecture firm with its own engineers and architects for four months. It was much like this situation where architects are pure CAD people. The job of an architect was much different than what I imagined, and recently I realized the sort of job I was expecting relates to construction management. Reading this blog, I couldn’t agree more as to how low exposure an intern gets in the field. I worked for two different project teams in the firm, and all I learned from those four months is cadding plans and producing renderings. I was and now am looking for something “hands-on” field experience, let it be not an architect’s job at all. I am looking for a four months internship for CM, and it seems the logic applies here just the same.
    What do you recommend for young students looking for internship in CM?

  9. BK Says:

    ^^ I sympathize with you.. I’m a CM and they put me in the Architecture department for some reason for this summer. These guys do design the site, but all via CAD, and it’s quite boring although admittedly easier than drawing it out like the old school days.

    I’ve only done this CM internship for 2 weeks and my experience, although it is abroad in Oman, mirrors his! At first I thought it was cultural differences but I guess not. My advice for you (and I as well) is to find a position that’s a sweet spot between tradesmen and supervisors. i.e. what does a site engineer do? Project engineer? In fact, what do you define as “hands-on”, anyway?


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