When Construction Internships Go Bad…
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.”