“How Engineers and Tradespeople Can Work Together to Better Serve the Client”

The skilled trades are responsible for turning the engineer’s interpretation of the client’s vision into a brick-and-mortar facility. They are an integral part of the construction team who do not always get the recognition they deserve.

The skilled trades are occupations that require a special skill, knowledge, or ability that can be obtained through an apprentice program or by attending a college, technical school, or specialized training classes. Skilled trades provide alternative opportunities for employment without the need for a four-year college degree.

While skilled trades can be separated into many areas such as healthcare, technology, energy, construction, or manufacturing, they are generally divided into the following three categories: construction, mechanic and repair, and precision production. Skilled trade workers work well with their hands and are trained to perform specific tasks or functions. As ASPE is involved in the vertical build market (construction), such skilled trades refer to a number of occupations requiring specific hands-on skills, including plumbers, pipefitters, welders, electricians, sprinkler fitters, carpenters, iron workers, masons, cement finishers, controls and electronic tradespeople, and many more. These occupations play a key role in the construction processes and are a critical part of the nation’s workforce.

Tradesperson Perspective

The skilled trades bring the practical knowledge that supports the means and methods of transforming a design into the physical reality of a constructed facility. The trades are well skilled in how things are integrated from the constructability perspective. Many of these tradespeople have graduated from apprenticeship programs and have intensive on-the-job experience. These journeymen have a depth of knowledge that can assist any designer or engineer in improving their design and aid in ensuring the constructability of the design. While they may not have an in-depth knowledge of the underlying physics and engineering principles, do not discount their knowledge of how these systems operate and function.

While a skilled tradesperson will have gained a “high view” of the underlying functioning of these systems from a macro level, they might lack the detail of principles that make them work from a micro level. That by no means should lessen their knowledge or practical experience in the application of the necessary skills to take a design and convert it into a working system. In my judgment, both skill sets are just as important.

Engineer Perspective

While engineers will gain a deep understanding of the underlying theories, scientific principles, and engineering methods offered in a ABET-accredited curriculum, after graduating they may not be prepared to apply those principles in a functioning, operational, and integrated real-world mechanical system. A newly hired engineer must learn the codes and associated standards and gain practical knowledge of the materials involved within plumbing systems while on the job because these are not part of the engineering educational process.

As noted, an engineer’s skill set typically is built from a minimal four-year college degree in which they study the sciences, mathematics, and physics that relate to their specific area of engineering. That skill set is based on theory and the application of the scientific method, but it is short on practical application. Unless the engineer can obtain actual on-the-job experience or work with a skilled tradesperson who has those abilities, they will need to work hard to achieve the necessary field experience to make them a good engineer.

Working Together

The engineer/designer on the design team and the skilled tradesperson on the construction team complement each other. Working together, the two teams can improve the final outcome without taking anything away from either team.

Open and frank communication, as well as the sharing of knowledge as a team, brings the best results. While from a legal and liability point of view, the Engineer of Record (EOR) has to make the final decision, the EOR should never make that decision without discussion and consultation with all members of the project team. It has been my experience over the years that it is better to listen and consider before rendering a decision. Everyone brings a skill set based on their training, education, and life experience, which should not be ignored.

The four-year college experience is different from the two-year community college or technical school experience. The latter institutions provide an overview of the underlying theories and focus more on practical application of the skill set necessary to work in a designated field. They are similar to apprenticeship programs offered by the unions or industry. Apprenticeship programs integrate formal education with hands-on field experience to provide the student with both technical knowledge and real-world experience. This approach provides the skilled tradesperson with a solid technical skill set.

Regardless of the area of specialty—plumbing, HVAC, electrical, sheet metal, carpentry, iron worker, etc. —apprenticeship programs provide a solid basis for technical knowledge and field work. A seasoned skilled tradesperson brings a great deal of knowledge related to the practical means and methods associated with their trade. As engineers, we should make use of that knowledge that we lack. Never believe that formal, higher education outweighs the technical knowledge of a skilled tradesperson. The skill sets should complement each other, not be at odds. It is a matter of perspective. The engineer brings the understanding of the physical sciences, while the skilled tradesperson brings the practical application of knowledge to apply to the engineer’s design.

A Personal Example

I have had the opportunity to bring a unique skill set to my career. During my high school years I worked alongside my father, who had a plumbing and heating business. He did new home construction and sewer/water service installations along with service to maintain such systems. My mother and I lost him at the young age of 54, so we were faced with the decision to close the business and lay off several people or continue the business. We chose to continue, which made it necessary to find a licensed plumber to oversee operations. We were lucky in that a recently retired Master Plumber was willing to work with us. It took roughly a year for me to study and pass the Master Plumber exam, bypassing the normal path of journeyman to master (although I still had to take the journeyman lead-wiping portion). My mother and I continued to operate that business for roughly 20+ years before she retired and sold the business to a competitor.

Following the sale of the business, I worked in the field for several years as a skilled tradesperson, estimator, project manager, and project engineer. While working for a large mechanical contractor that was going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I served as a project manager, service department manager, estimator, and ASME fabrications manager. The company received an investment from a person who had a habit of buying struggling companies and selling off pieces. As part of the process he formed a new, open shop company to which I was transferred. After about a year, I decided that I needed to finish my engineering education, so we separated.

I had been working toward an engineering degree on a part-time basis for many years. After separating from the company, I returned to college on a full-time basis to finish my senior year, and just about a year later I completed my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. This was followed by several years of engineering experience working under the responsible charge of a Registered Professional Engineer. After gaining the necessary experience, I obtained my own professional registration.

My Advice to Other Engineers

Based on my rather unique skill set, I have the following thoughts and advice to other engineers. While we as engineers have the theoretical knowledge and book learning, engineers are not knowledgeable in the practical application of design. Once the engineer enters into the design/consulting business, they need to spend much time learning the practical skill sets of codes, standards, and construction techniques along with gaining an understanding of the physical requirements of assembling the systems shown on our documents. This is where it is wise to seek input from those professionals who are skilled in the means and methods, the skilled trade’s part of the construction team.

I take from my skill set the ability to discuss the design and any issues that someone might see. As a skilled tradesperson, I always got along with the engineers who were willing to listen, discuss, and adjust their design based on field conditions or practical considerations. It was a different story when I would become involved with an engineer who thought that they knew better and that somehow they were superior to the tradesperson. I would install the system as they directed, but ultimately they had to correct the problem that had been discussed (but they knew better). It would cost the owner or engineer to make the corrections necessary to make the system operate. This was something that would have been unnecessary if only we treated each other as equals, listening to each other’s perspective and concerns, and working out the issues equitably so that time and money could be conserved.

As a practicing engineer and many times the EOR, I have always believed that my designs are accurate, practical, and constructible, but I am also well aware that my designs are not perfect. That is why I have always sought out review and comment from those around me, including the skilled tradespeople who ultimately have to construct my design. Through the exchange of ideas and open discussion we can improve our designs and better serve the client while protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

Although as the EOR I must make the final decision, as it is my design to which I hold responsibility and liability, I am also well aware that each member of the team brings a different and valuable skill set. It is wise to seek other views and perspectives to maximize the design to ensure the best practical solution that serves the client and the public.

In closing, remember that even if you are the EOR, all skill sets are valuable and should be considered.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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