An Interview with Chris Nickerson

“An engineer needs to be comfortable communicating with colleagues and customers in the field, especially if they want to advance in their career.”

Chris Nickerson is a licensed structural engineer. He designs cellular towers and buildings for Pacific Telecom Services in Seattle, Washington.

Chris earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from University of Washington and an associates degree from Shoreline Community College. He has been a licensed structural engineer in the state of Washington for the past 11 years.

In your own words, what is a structural engineer?

A structural engineer is responsible for designing and constructing the support skeleton for buildings, bridges and other structures to ensure they are stable and safe when used. Structural engineers often collaborate with architects who draw the layout of their proposed structure.

At my current job, I mainly complete projects for the telecommunications industry, where I design and analyze cellular towers. I also do some residential construction design.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a structural engineer,” what would your response be?

I would tell students interested in becoming a structural engineer to make sure that they have a natural curiosity about how stuff works in the world as well as a passion for math. Students need to have these 2 qualities in order to succeed in the engineering field.

What level of education is necessary to become a structural engineer?

To become a structural engineer, it is necessary to earn at least a bachelors degree in engineering. However, students who earn their masters degree will more specialized in the field and will be able to work on more complex structures.

Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a structural engineer?

Yes, there is a licensing requirement to become a structural engineer. Students must take a national exam to become an engineer-in-training and work under a professional engineer for a certain number of hours. Once their hours are verified, engineers-in-training take an 8-hour licensing exam, which covers the fundamentals of engineering as well as specific knowledge on structural engineering.

Why did you decide to become a structural engineer?

I decided to become a structural engineer because I love math and physics, which are the 2 main components of an engineering degree. While I was attending community college, I noticed that many of the students who were taking math and physics classes, like me, were also taking engineering classes. As a result, I naturally gravitated toward the engineering discipline.

What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a structural engineer?

Although I did not have any major misconceptions about becoming a structural engineer, I can say that the engineering profession has exceeded my expectations in terms of reliability and stability. It is a wonderful and steady career.

What do you enjoy most and least about being a structural engineer?

As a structural engineer, I enjoy being able to problem-solve. I love brainstorming creative ideas and formulating solutions for different problems.

On the other hand, the least enjoyable aspect of my job is the level of detachment from the actual construction of the structures I design. I would prefer to be out in the field more so that I could see what is actually being built.

What is a typical week like for you?

During a typical week, I spend 40 to 50 hours interacting with clients and staff, drafting and adjusting design plans, studying old drawings, figuring out structural calculations and mentoring younger engineers on different projects. My job requires a lot of coordination with various resources and people such as engineers, architects and clients throughout the entire design process. If I have a particularly busy week, I might bring some of my work home with me.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?

I balance my work and personal life by creating boundaries between work and home, managing my time and resources wisely, and trying not to overwork or overcommit myself. Fortunately, I work for a company that values and encourages balance in their employees’ lives.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a structural engineer and what traits would hinder success?

In order to be a successful structural engineer, you need to have good communication skills. An engineer needs to be comfortable communicating with colleagues and customers in the field, especially if they want to advance in their career. An engineer should also be detail-oriented in order to draft a precise design.

However, you may struggle in this field if you need to express yourself creatively to be fulfilled. Structural engineers must follow a specific set of rules to create a structurally sound design. As a result, engineers can’t take too many creative liberties.

Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?

Looking back at my formal education, I wish I hadn’t worked as much as I did. I wish I had gotten more involved with on-campus activities.

Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a structural engineer should pursue?

A student interested in becoming a structural engineer should join student chapters of professional organizations to work on fun projects with other like-minded students and to attend programs focused on sparking their interest in the engineering field. Also, students should visit open houses at universities to learn more about the different disciplines within the engineering field.

What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?

The most valuable classes I took were in technical writing, basic economics, math and physics. My technical writing class improved my ability to communicate as an engineer, while my basic economics class taught me the fundamentals of business. Most importantly, my math and physics classes taught me the necessary knowledge to understand the principles of engineering.

My least valuable class was anthropology, because it didn’t apply to my future profession. However, I still found the course material interesting, so I don’t regret taking it.

What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a structural engineer?

I would advise a student who is interested in becoming a structural engineer to talk with other engineering students and professors, and to explore their school’s various engineering programs. This will help a student figure out where their interests lie within the broad field of engineering.

In addition, I would encourage students to make communication skills a priority. Engineers have a tendency to focus on their work and forget about interacting with their colleagues. It is extremely important for engineers to be open and willing to communicate with people in their work environment.