Careers advice and planning

Consulting or contracting: which civil engineering job is right for you?

21 Jun 2023, 15:37

Which type of graduate civil, structural or building services engineering employer would suit you best? Our guide to how a project gets built and our 'civil engineering contractor v. consultant' tool can help you choose.


The traditional process of completing a construction project from start to finish involves the work of several different organisations – graduate civil, structural and building services engineers can find jobs with virtually any of them, but your role will be differently focused depending on which you choose. Our guide to the construction process of a typical process, along with our 'consultant v. contractor career chooser' infographic, will help you decide which role and employer would suit you.

How does a construction project get built and what will an engineer do?

With thanks to Sir Robert McAlpine for its explanation of this …

1. The client has something to be built

The client (which is often a property developer, a public sector organisation, a utilities or infrastructure provider) decides what they want to build, when they need it to be finished and how much they are prepared to pay.

Engineering graduates may join a client organisation in a project management role, in a design role or in a maintenance role, depending on the organisation.

2. The consultant designs the project

Consultants are usually employed for their expert knowledge in a particular field, for example, planning regulations, the design of a project, health, safety and welfare regulations or costing. While traditionally employed by the client, consultants are now increasingly recruited by contractors as part of their design team.

Engineering graduates typically work on engineering designs, although later on in a project they may be seconded to a construction site to liaise with contractors.

3. The contractor conducts the majority of the construction work…

Once sufficient design information is available, the client’s consultant team will issue tenders to contractors, who then submit a price or bid for building the project. The contractor awarded the work then has the task of completing the project in accordance with the design, to the required quality, in the time allowed and for the agreed price. Responsibilities also include the safety, health and welfare of the workforce and the public, the protection of the environment and minimising disruption. Contractors hire subcontractors for specialist parts of the project such as reinforced concrete works, structural steelwork, foundation piling, roofing, cladding, plumbing and electrical work .

Engineering graduates tend to supervise the work on site, managing teams to ensure that the designs are implemented correctly. However, larger principal contractors may also have design-based roles available for graduates, especially if they take on design-and-build projects.

How do I choose the right engineering job and employer for me?

Most engineering students will join consultants or contractors – if you are struggling to decide whether you are best suited to design (consulting) or building (contracting), our infographic will help you identify your priorities (click on the image below to see the PDF version).

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