In Defense of the Land Development Engineer

July 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm 30 comments


By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search, Inc.
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of CivilEngineeringCentral.com

Over the years I have often seen outstanding land development engineers desire to break into a new area of specialization under the civil engineering umbrella, yet they have found the opportunity to do so to be scarce, at best, purely because they have a background in land development.  That said, after discussing this topic with numerous land development engineers across the country, I have been so inclined to blog…in defense of land development engineers.

Why do many firms who specialize in areas of water & wastewater, highway engineering, water resources, etc, turn a blind eye, when hiring, to candidates who come from a land development background?   The usual response is that they do not have the desired technical experience, and  would rather go without having to absorb the cost of training someone.  As a recruiter, I completely understand that reasoning.  There are some deeper stereotypes though that should be addressed here, so let’s do a little point/counterpoint as we evaluate some of these potential misconceptions…shall we?

  • POINT: Land Development Engineers are the “General Practitioners” of the civil engineering industry.  They are jacks-of-all-trades-and-masters-of-none.
  • COUNTERPOINT: Land Development Engineers are indeed jacks of all trades, but they are often masters of those trades as well.  When pulling together a land development project you are dealing with roadway, traffic, hydrology & hydraulics, utilities, etc.  With a good 7-10 years of experience a talented engineer can fully master these concepts.  This shows a high level of intelligence and a desire to learn.
  • POINT: If our highways and treatment plants and bridges were designed as poorly as some of the subdivisions then we would have an enormous problem.
  • COUNTERPOINT: Though you many not always like what you see, often times it is the land development engineer who is at the mercy of their client- the developer.  Some developers have the goal of fitting as many lots as possible within a parcel of land for the least amount of money.  This is unfortunate as many land development engineers are very creative.  It’s not always about what it looks like, but rather the money – and at the mercy of the client their hands are often tied.  Many firms would walk away from this type of client because  they do not share the same philosophy…but many do not walk away.
  • POINT: Dealing with governmental clients is much more complicated than dealing with a developer.
  • COUNTERPOINT: Have you ever dealt with a developer?  Enormous amounts of pressure,  often times ridiculous deadlines with ridiculous expectations, and then there is the collections process.  Also, land development engineers deal with MANY different personalities -not only their clients, but attorneys, municipal engineers and other governmental agencies, designers, surveyors, planners and landscape architects, builders, home buyers, angry citizens at public meetings, etc.  I would tend to say, that more often than not, an experienced land development engineer could handle dealing with governmental engineers.

In the end, it may not be so much the technical skill set  as it is the mentality.  I believe that there are many talented land development engineers out there that could pick up pretty quickly on how to design a highway, a dam or a bridge with a little mentoring and  some additional studying/training after hours.  Land development engineers are used to spinning many plates at once in a fast paced environment, and are not often the analytical number crunchers that you so desire when designing a treatment plant.

So, when a sound land development engineering resume does surface, don’t be so quick to rule them outWhat if they are indeed a number cruncher? Imagine a number cruncher then that has acquired great communication and team building skills as a result of being in a land development environment and what that could bring to the table for your firm’s bridge or water resources group.  Would you be better off hiring this engineer and taking the time to catch him or her up to speed in a specific specialty rather than searching for the perfect candidate for two years with nothing to show?

During the current recession that we are entrenched in this may not be too much of an issue for you with the surplus of candidates “out on the street.”  But during improved times and boom times, is this mentality really too “out of the box” for the civil engineering industry?

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Entry filed under: Career Development, Civil Engineering, Civil Engineering Issues, Civil Engineering Jobs, Civil Engineering Resumes, Civil Engineering Shortage, Corporate Recruiters, Interviewing, Recruiting, The U.S. Economy & Civil Engineering, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , .

Happy 4th of July! Civil Engineering Jobs – Will Any Job Do?

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ken Abramson  |  July 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Nice article and excellent topic. Couple of points:

    1. A successful LDE is already used to dealing with government officials and jurisdictional authorities. Anyone who has worked on the design, entitlement, and permitting of a major LD project understands how challenging that environment. I actually believe LDE’s are more often better skilled with government as they deal with officials on projects where the government has little or know money onvolved. In public sector consulting the government is the client and they will often be much more amicable on resolving permitting issues to make sure their public project stays on schedule. In dealing with developers, the municipalities aren’t concerned with the finances or the schedule and therefore thay are much more difficult to negotiate with. As a developer you’re negotiating with the government and the LDE plays a significant role in that process. As a public sector consultant you’re working with the government. It’s logical that coming from the developer’s side where the LDE has to be good at negotiating because they have few negotiating “cards” that they will be even more effective when the government is their partner on a project.

    2. Regarding “master of” or techincal competence I would say that a typical LDE has some area of specialization, or several. Many come from an industry specific consulting background – mostly stormwater and transportation. However the main point as it relates to this is that an LDE has to be extremely budget aware. Therefore there is an inherent requirement to be technically competent in all areas of civil infrastructure that relates to LD. How can an LDE be able to solve major problems and simultaneously reconcile serious budget constraints without fully understanding all the technical issues.

    I think successful LDE’s are easily integrated in certain other CE roles. These roles include transportation, utilities (conveyance systems), stormwater, environmental (limited – all non-treatment related), and construction management just to name a few. LDE’s are often excellent project managers because of their need to juggle so many issues for highly demanding clients. YES – private sector clients are far more demanding (even unreasonable) than the public sector. Both have their challenges and I have consulted extensively in both arenas. Te each have their challenges but the LDE working with private sector developers is used to unreasonable expectations, extremely fast paced environment, and an almost schizophrenic change of plans. This touches on the LDE’s metabolism. I would say that if there is a drawback to hiring successful LDE’s for public sector consulting. That drawback would be their high business metabolism. They may find themselves frustrated by the change of pace. Bureaucracy is not positively accepted in the private sector. The firm may find that they have a team of engineers that accelerate their resource leveling charts if an LDE is running the team:)

    Areas that LDE’s are generally not suited for predominantly reside with vertical facilities related work. ALTHOUGH – some LDE’s have extensive experience with amenity design for developments and therefore may be able to integrate in that area if they have specific education that compliments that experience.

    Good article – I hope this helps to progress a change of opinion that LDE’s can easily integrate into other positions.

    Reply
  • 2. Jeff Sloman  |  July 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Great article. I am very glad that I had started my career in land development 15 years ago as it allowed me to obtain experience designing different aspects of a project (stormwater management, water and wastewater, grading, erosion control, etc.).

    It’s funny how during the boom, companies that specialized in say, highway design, would clamor to hire you if you designed maybe a few cul-de-sacs during your career. Now, as many of the previous comments have stated, your experience has to match to posting almost exactly in order to have a chance at getting the position.

    I guess the big consolation is that things have to turn around sometime, right?

    Reply
  • 3. Victoria  |  July 17, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    The question is “Why do many firms who specialize in areas of water & wastewater, highway engineering, water resources, etc, turn a blind eye, when hiring, to candidates who come from a land development background”? The usual response is that they do not have the desired technical experience, and would rather go without having to absorb the cost of training someone. Let’s get real! When a recession hits as hard as it has in our profession, the bottom line is, when it comes to filling a position, that company wants the best. What is meant by the best? Is it a candidate that has a halo spinning over their head? No. Whatever the qualifications are for said position, they want a match right down to the dots over the I’s. You may meet all of the qualifications, but if you are over qualified and are willing to work for less money, then you will most likely will get the job. Why do companies do this? It’s because they can.

    Reply
    • 4. aepcentral  |  July 20, 2009 at 8:40 am

      Hey Victoria,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I did want to clarify with you though my last paragraph:

      “During the current recession that we are entrenched in this may not be too much of an issue for you with the surplus of candidates “out on the street.” But during improved times and boom times, is this mentality really too “out of the box” for the civil engineering industry?”

      So yes, I realize that these days firms can be very selective because of the high volume of candidates out on the street due to so many lay-offs. My commentary was discussing the situation during times when the economy is robust and thriving and the market for civil engineers is tight.

      Reply
  • 5. Chuck Olson  |  July 16, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Excellent article. I’m primarily a municipal water/wastewater engineer but I have quite a few friends who are land development engineers. I agree very much with the assessment of them. I’ve worked at a couple of firms that did land development and it expanded my skill set when I helped them on projects.

    Reply
  • 6. Deji  |  July 15, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Great Article, I have this issues happen and like most people have said, Land Development Engineers are so diverse and look at a project on a whole. We have some people in our office that all they do is roadway and the things i bring up to them, they never think of. Things from stormwater to Utilities, to environmental issues. I think we are overlooked many times. A land development project involves roadway, stormwater, utilities even landscaping and environmental issues that we have to deal with. Not to mention the demanding clients. In my case dealing with local, state and federal codes. The worst are local codes, those change in a heart beat, even though you meet the requirements officals can decide that they don’t like it place an agenda item and have a code changed in a week.

    Reply
  • 7. Tom Pickering, PE  |  July 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Matt,

    Once again a wonderful article and I applaud additional insight from so many. I’ve been silent over the last few months reading numerous discussions/blogs/articles on the state of our business of LD. Now, having been in the business for over 30 years and lived through the changes from slide rules to pocket PC’s, from the Selectric to a word processor, from a dumpy level to a robotic total station, many in this business of engineering seem to forget that in the not so distance past we were all Civil Engineers.
    There were no specialized fields and we were all taught water/wastewater, transportation, traffic, stormwater, structural, geotechnical, etc, and we all took the same PE exam. LD is a specialized field that is learned over time by trial and error and experience that is passed on to each new generation of civil engineers. Even today there are very few educational programs that teach LD. Today’s LDE’s have to be the best of nearly all of the specialized fields of civil engineering to succeed in today’s world.

    My final point: I have seen many LDE’s, including myself, succeed in the move from LD to a specialized field and I have seen as many whose career was based in a specialized area fail at LD. LDE’s are the most versatile, adaptable civil engineers in the marketplace, and without them our future would not be so bright.

    Reply
    • 8. aepcentral  |  July 13, 2009 at 9:00 am

      Tom,

      Thanks for the compliments and I appreciate your insight into this topic-your passion in what you do is great, I hope other LDE’s can remain as passionate even during these difficult economic times. We have not had any responses from other civil engineers outside of the land development specialty, I wonder what their opinion is on all of this?

      Thanks again,

      Matt

      Reply
  • 9. Sean Malekjahani, PE  |  July 10, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    It’s a matter of time. Employers have a large pool of candidates at their disposal but time will change. What is a little annoying about civil engineers is that many of them aren’t proficient with computers and software even MS Office. It’s true for project managers too especially those who has the luxury of an assistant. I am pretty comfortable with computer stuff and have noticed engineers even assistants not bothering to learn how to work efficiently with applications. I don’t mean to brag but I have showed them many times how to use MS Office a little more efficient although I’m not an Office guru.

    Reply
  • 10. Lawrence Byrne PE  |  July 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Great article and assesment of Land Development engineers. I worked at mid sized civil consulting firm (125 people) for almost 20 years and was the assistant manager of the land development division. We considered ourself the “elite” group in our company because we got things done usually with unrealistic schedules and budgets. We worked on all types of projects from major land develpments to minor subdivisions. As the LDE and project manager you are responsible for all aspects of the project such as water, sewer, grading, drainage, erosion control, landscaping, roadways, zoning, schedules, billings, collection etc. etc. etc.

    We also did the projects for the municipal engineers such as parks, ballfields, trails and roadways, because even though the municipal engineer could write a detailed and lenghty review letter (usually from a check list) they could not put together a set of plans or work with a budget and schedule if they tried.

    I left my position as a land development engineer about 5 years ago to work with a large regional devloper to make the big bucks, which worked out well until the economy and real estate market along with my job went south. I quickly found out there was no market for Land Development engineers so I started my own company and haven’t looked back. With out the broad and varied experience I gained as a land development engineer I would never have been able to start my own firm. You have to be a jack of all trades to be successful.

    Reply
  • 11. Taysir Yassien  |  July 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Great article in our defense as the Land Development Engineer.
    I believe Matt really took everyones insight on the topic.
    Now let’s witness the outcome of it all.
    Best of luck to all!!!

    Reply
  • 12. Pam Bush  |  July 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Thank you for the article. I hope more employers read this and comment. As on out-of-work LDE, I’d like to hear why a company would rather have a position remain unfilled and work back up than to hire an LDE who needs a little “fine-tuning.”

    The reason I love being an LDE is that it’s hard to get bored with your job. From the site to the developer to the municipality, no two projects are ever the same. That makes for a diverse set of skills that few other disciplines can touch. I love being able to watch a project go from concept to construction and know my fingerprints are all over it.

    Reply
  • 13. John Wright  |  July 9, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    What a great discussion! I couldn’t agree more with the comments that are written above. In my personal experience that is why I have throughly enjoyed being a “LDE”. We are exposed to a wide variety of design issues and site constraints ranging from sanitary sewer issues to stormwater management concerns. I have even wore the “hat” as a land planner is preparing conceptual plans for residential developments and commercial shopping centers. Building client relationships are another aspect we LDE’s have dealt with on an every day basis. I have interacted with many different personalities over the years. Looking back on my relatively young career (12 years) I don’t think I would have changed anything except possibly being employed with a stronger, more diverse company. There is a lot of talent sitting on the sidelines, I hope some companies take the chance on us.

    Reply
  • 14. Sean Malekjahani, PE  |  July 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Great article! Thanks for defending us! I can’t agree more with you especially your last paragraph. There was “employee” time when companies were searching for any candidates with little success and hiring them at the spot. Now it’s “employer” time. They have far more applicants they could wish for. Time will change again.
    Like Taylor Anderson said above, the complexity of stormwater systems or SWPPP is not less than highway or treatment plans at all. I’ve been actively involved in stormwater and erosion control design for some years in Florida so I can tell you that with ever-increasing requirements, designing a sound stormwater management system can be very tedious and time consuming. It does require the LD engineer to be a “number cruncher”.
    On the other hand, the flip is true too, isn’t it? I mean when the employer has a land development position available, they won’t hire a transportation engineer, will they?

    Reply
    • 15. aepcentral  |  July 9, 2009 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks Sean…regarding your last sentence / question…I believe that land development firms are much more likely to hire a transportation engineer than a transportation engineering firm is to hire a land development engineer. Also, you will find that many Sole Proprietors are more likely to do land development even though their previous corporate experience was more specialized in water resources, treatment plants, etc. Is this because land development is an easier discipline to grasp, or is it because there are too many hoops to go through and too much red tape to become a governmental consultant? I suspect the latter, and also because many of those specialized projects like large interchanges or grass roots treatment plants are enormous and require lots of resources; resources that a small shop cannot possibly provide. Where as a land development tract can ultimately be done by just one or two folks, depending upon the size.

      Reply
      • 16. Sean Malekjahani, PE  |  July 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

        It’s kind of discouraging. They prefer other CEs over land development engineers even for LD positions? Does that mean I have to refrain from sending applications until all other unemployed civil engineers got hired? No I don’t think so. Somewhere some employer realizes the value of LD engineers. I just hope the economy boom comes back soon. That will be sooner than later I’m sure.

      • 17. aepcentral  |  July 9, 2009 at 4:45 pm

        @Sean – I don’t believe they prefer other CE’s over LDE’s for LDE positions…but…when times good candidates are difficult to find they seem to little more flexible in their hiring practices then other specialty areas.

      • 18. Taylor Anderson, PE  |  July 9, 2009 at 6:06 pm

        Matt-

        In order to compete for government work, a one man shop and probably just about any company with less than 30 employees, is going to really struggle to even prepare a cohesive and presentable response to an RFP. The companies that go after those projects, particularly in this market, are going to have very “shiny” resumes. Smaller shops can partner either with a larger firm (perhaps a non-local large firm with a “shiny” resume and a local small firm that has a very good local reputation) or smaller local firms partnering up together to go after government projects.

        By partnering, smaller companies (or one man shops) can then spread some of the cost of response to an RFP, which can easily climb into the several thousands of dollars range, which is a lot of money for a small firm to invest in what is probably a long shot for them.

        Private land development, on the other hand, is rarely competitively bid. Private land developers usually use people they know and trust rather than looking for the “shiny” resume. In fact, shiny resumes are usually a disadvantage because, in order to be shiny, you have to have LOTS of overhead. Why would a private land developer want to pay for that? The same thing applies to architects hiring a civil as a sub-consultant on a land development project – they’re looking for either the cheapest (to increase their share of the usual % of construction cost contracts they often have) or people they’ve worked with in the past.

        This is a great thread with many outstanding contributions! Hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

  • 19. Richard Ellis. PE  |  July 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Matt,

    Great discussion. I started in stormwater, transitioned into land development early in my career, but maintained my stormwater capabilities. I recently completed a roadway modification project with a major stormwater component for a public sector client. I saw some differences in how the project was developed and processed, but nothing significant.

    I’m wondering if these firms want to show this specialized experience in preparation of proposals to be selected for public sector clients. I have tried to market my stormwater experience to several firms with no success and can only arrive at this as a reason.

    Thanks again for your article.

    Richard Ellis

    Reply
    • 20. aepcentral  |  July 9, 2009 at 11:15 am

      Richard,

      I suspect this is very likely to be the case…they do not want to put a land development engineer on a proposal for a bridge or highway or dam project. This makes sense and I get that…BUT…often times, if one is willing to get into a new area of specialization he/she may be willing to step back from the limelight and learn the different concepts while in the trenches. This way they can be left off of proposals until they gain some full fledged experience.

      Reply
  • 21. John R. Morgan, P.E.  |  July 9, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Matt,

    That is a perfect summation of the position that the Land Development Engineer is in. I believe many companies looking to fill specific positions are missing out on the experience a LDE brings. As an example, a LDE working in a roadway design group would see the project as a whole and not just as what grade does this roadway need to be at. The conflicts that could be identified early on could save a tremendous amount of time and money. In this government led economy maybe savings takes a back seat where as when working in the private sector if you don’t show savings (value engineering, and this in no way means cutting corners) you probably will not work with that client again.

    Very frustrating.

    Reply
  • 22. Taylor Anderson, PE  |  July 9, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Matt-

    I actually had a draft of a very similar blog sitting in my WordPress database and haven’t had the time to finish it up. (Which is a good thing…)

    The big push right now to candidates is “transferable skills” – and the land development engineer, dare I biassedly say, has far more transferable skills that any other civil engineer out there. As you list in your last point/counterpoint, land development engineers not only work with every government agency that other fields of civil engineers work with, there are several layers more.

    What I’m confused about, though, because I hadn’t heard this critique, is that there is a perception that land development engineers are not number crunchers? On what sort of rationale could this possibly be based? Have they (ubiquitous, I know) not seen the complexity and depth of today’s storm water management reports, grading design and environmental and erosion control compliance requirements (to name a few)?

    I’ll put the complexity of a subdivision street up against a highway with its generous right-of-way, lack of utilities and no storm water management requirements any day.

    I’ll put the complexity of even a fairly small commercial or industrial development up against your average water treatment plant.

    And if citing poor design of some subdivisions is an actual complaint and reason for ignoring land development engineers, I don’t think it would take too long at all for land development engineers to start pointing out design flaws in any number of roads, bridges, intersections, sanitary sewer, water main and storm water designs.

    There’s got to be more logical reasons for the brushing aside of land development engineers for serious consideration in other fields. Or, at least, I hope there is.

    Obviously, land development engineers are not perfect, but many of them easily have the skills necessary for any civil engineering field with the exception of structural (which is true for every other civil field too…). Land development engineers are the jack-of-all-trades, many of whom have the added benefit of people skills and the ability to sell and market that are now absolutely necessary in this incredibly competitive market place.

    Reply
    • 23. aepcentral  |  July 9, 2009 at 10:19 am

      Many great points Taylor, thanks for sharing. My comments regarding land development engineers not being number crunches very well may be more perception than reality. But when you think of folks designing advanced water treatment plants and enormous underground tunnels you think of the PhD/nose to the grind stone number cruncher…which is NOT what one normally thinks of when they think of a land development engineer…but maybe they should, as land development engineers often need be very creative with their calculations and design.

      Reply
  • 24. Sam Jacoby, P.E.  |  July 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Great topic!

    Reply
    • 25. aepcentral  |  July 8, 2009 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks Sam…any thoughts?!?!

      Reply
  • 26. David Perrings  |  July 8, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Matt,

    I agree with your assessment, and of course I do not have any reason not to agree with you since i am in land development. I do hope some people from the “other” type of firms respond to this because it will be interesting to hear what they have to say.

    When I first started working in land development after a few years of highway planning work the work environment went from black and white television to technicolor.

    Land development projects on average are on a sort time fuse so that an engineer not only gets to design something he actually gets to see it being built which provides for a high degree of satisfaction to see those lines drawn on a plan materialize into a 42 inch concrete pipe in the field.

    Another benifit of the land development enviornment is that I spend most of my time actually doing engineering instead of being boughed down with endless administrative duties or endless meetings.

    I have tried over the years to switch to goverment work and or speciality firms with very limited success and i never really have understood what the road block is but i suspect that it has to do more with the work place culture rather than technical ability. I consider myself fortunate that i currently work in land development and find the work challenging, diverse and rewarding.

    That is my two cents for now anyway.

    David L. Perrings, PE
    dperrings@padesignresources.com

    Reply
  • 27. hintonhumancapital  |  July 8, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Matt,
    This is a great article.

    Stephen

    Reply
    • 28. aepcentral  |  July 8, 2009 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks Steve for reading…much appreciated!

      Reply
  • 29. David Perrings, PE  |  July 8, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Matt,

    thanks for the article. i will be sure to comment after i have had a chance to read it. I hope that we will be able to keep this discussion going.

    David Perrings, PE
    Land Development Engineer
    dperrings@padesignresources.com

    Reply
    • 30. aepcentral  |  July 8, 2009 at 4:46 pm

      Hey Dave,

      I always appreciate your insight on these topical issues and look forward to your sharing your thoughts and comments.

      Best,

      Matt

      Reply

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