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Engineers play a large role in the maintenance and development of society's infrastructure, but opportunities exist beyond working for governments or specialized firms. There's a thriving consulting engineering sector in Canada and a lot of applications for an engineering degree in the field if diversity and challenge is what you crave. 

After graduating from the University of Waterloo's nanotechnology engineering program in 2011, Uzair Chutani found work as a technology consulting analyst at Accenture. I felt consulting was the right fit for me, because I like different challenges all the time, he says. I think with other types of companies, the work can get a little repetitive and potentially boring. 

The scope of work a consulting firm does might be broader than you think. Lots of firms do a wide variety of things that are peripheral to engineering, says Chris Newcomb, president and CEO of McElhanney Consulting Services. He lists some examples: Architecture, surveying and mapping, environmental services, even socio-economic analyses. 

For Richard Trimble, principal consultant for EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd's Whitehorse branch, the challenges of the job aren't strictly based in engineering. For every project, you always have to keep in mind that there's been a budget established, he says. It's the balancing of technical requirements with business requirements that separates consulting engineering work from working for a government or other sort of company.

There are a lot of different ways to progress in the field, including but not limited to further academic studies. For those who want to specialize in something, like becoming an authority on designing pipelines or sewage plants, post-graduate programs are an option, says Newcomb. I don't think that's mandatory, though. One of our best highway designers has a mechanical engineering degree, which is a very different aspect of engineering than what he studied. I think you can be a highly regarded specialist through learning on the job.

Education and experience go hand in hand when pursuing a professional engineering license (P.Eng.). Different provinces have different requirements, although all require an accredited engineering degree, followed by four years of experience, including one year of Canadian experience before you can get the designation, says Trimble.

As far as job opportunities in the near future, Trimble points to natural resources. Resource development, primarily mining, oil and gas, are where the jobs have been for the past five years and where they'll be for the next five years, he says. Consulting companies do work for the resource development companies too, and when they hire us we need people to do that work.

Newcomb offers advice for those considering the consulting engineering field. I'd recommend that someone take a general engineering degree and find summer jobs at different firms, he says. If you do a four-year degree and work three summers, you're in a much better place to decide what aspect of engineering you enjoy most. 

As for getting your foot in the door, it helps to be flexible. The more mobile you are, the more opportunities you'll get and the more responsibility you'll be given, says Newcomb. The best opportunities are always in the places where people least want to go.

When he was looking for a job while still in school, Chutani found his opportunity through connecting with consulting professionals. Lots of schools have great networking sessions, which can allow you to understand what the work looks like, he says. Professionals are more able to help if you just reach out. Ask a lot of questions first instead of diving in. It's your first job and you don't want to be discouraged after a few months.

For Newcomb, the appeal of a consulting engineering job can be summed up succinctly: There's an infinite array of ways to address the world's great problems, like climate change, and engineers are involved almost every step of the way.

Photo: Dmitry Rukhlenko/Thinkstock