Tom Walsh, a Project Engineer at U.S. Engineering Innovations, recently passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. That’s the first step hopeful engineers must take on the road to obtaining a Professional Engineer (PE) license. Those on the PE path typically take the FE exam at the end of, or just after, earning a degree in engineering. Then they work under the direct supervision of a licensed Professional Engineer for typically four years before taking the PE exam and, if they pass, receiving a license.
Why would someone working for a mechanical contractor (such as one of the U.S. Engineering family of companies) want to obtain a PE license? We sat down, virtually, with Tom to ask that question, to get some tips for those who want to pass the FE exam and to gain an understanding of what leads a person to become a project engineer in mechanical construction.
First things first: congrats on passing the FE exam! Can you kick this interview off with some tips for others preparing for the test?
Treat prep questions like they’re actual test questions. Don’t give up on a prep question after 30 seconds and look to the back of the book for the solution. Use the allotted three minutes to really work through the problem, try your best to figure it out, and select an answer before flipping to the back of the book for the solution.
Also, there’s a big reference book called the FE Reference Handbook, full of charts and graphs, that you can use during the test. It contains all the supporting material you need. It’s bigger than my prep workbook [FE Mechanical Practice Problems by Michael R. Lindeburg], and referring to it during the test can be time consuming. So during prep after each question, I determined which equation from the Handbook it used. I looked up that equation in the Handbook and put a star next to it. By the end of the workbook, I could see that some of the equations in the Handbook had five or six stars, and some had zero. So I focused on becoming familiar with those equations with a lot of stars. That method helped me pinpoint which equations would most likely be used on the test, and it familiarized me with the Handbook, with where to find relevant equations.
Time management is key. Practice the workbook, and make sure you’re spending 3 minutes per question on each section. Skip a problem if you think it will take a while, or if you’re completely lost and don’t know where to start after 15 seconds. You can flag problems on the test, so flag the ones you skip, and at the end of the test, the program tells you how many you’ve flagged, and you can go back to them before submitting the test. And if you’re running out of time, survey the questions you have left, and do the quick ones first. Don’t get stuck on a time-consuming problem.
The exam is split in two timed sections with an optional 25-minute break in between. In my case, I finished the first half quickly and slowed down on the second half, but that put me in a time crunch toward the end of the test. I came across a problem I knew would take three or four times as long to solve as the other remaining problems, so instead of dwelling on it, I chose a reasonable answer and moved on to the quicker problems. Lastly, purchase a practice exam from NCEES and treat the practice exam like a real one to practice your time management and discover what sections need improvement.
And now that you’ve passed the FE exam, it’s on to the PE exam, eventually. What are the benefits of obtaining a PE license for someone on your career path in mechanical contracting?
My job has two sides: preconstruction and construction, and I’d say a PE license is a little more valuable on the preconstruction side. You’re looking at drawings that are sometimes incomplete, and you’re assisting the engineer of record with designs. It’s helpful if you are familiar with design. You can say, “hey, I think we should change this part of the design,” or “I don’t think this section will work for X reasons,” or “we can save money by changing this.”
Working in preconstruction, we do a lot of design-assist projects, and as a licensed engineer, you know the language of design. You know how to speak with engineers on the project, and you can participate in those conversations.
On the construction side, a license can help by giving you the training to notice when, say, something that is about to be installed isn’t up to code. You can recognize that and say “wait, let’s not install that yet until it’s fixed.” In addition to lending some professional credibility on a jobsite, it helps to have that knowledge of design systems as well as knowledge of engineering ethics.
So the FE exam covers ethics in addition to practical knowledge?
Yes. In fact, one of the sections in the prep book I used is titled “Ethics and Professional Practices.” The FE exam represents, I would say, the more academic side of preparing for the profession, while the PE exam tests more on experience. That said, some of my experiences prepared me for taking the FE exam. For example, several people on my team are involved in ASHRAE, and I attended an ASHRAE engineering ethics seminar with them, where an ethics expert talked about ethics on the jobsite. When I was studying for the FE exam, I found myself thinking about the stories the expert told in that talk.
What influenced your decision to work for a mechanical contractor?
I went to a college prep high school in St. Louis, St. Louis University High School, where they are heavily focused on arts, science and math. Naturally, the leadership of the high school always recommended degrees that stemmed from those subjects, like engineering. Plus my brother, who is three years older than me, was attending the University of Missouri Science and Technology, studying chemical engineering, around the time I was making the decision about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study.
At Mizzou, I started out thinking I would work on the design side—in an office working out calculations, designing systems. I got involved with the 3D printing club and the Formula SAE Team at that point. And then I started my 8-month co-op with Ameren, the electric utility company in the St. Louis area.
At the co-op I learned about the construction side of the industry, and about mechanical contracting. I was able to work a lot with the mechanical contractor on the project, which was mostly about mechanical systems and structural engineering. It was a wastewater project for an existing coal power plant that had to come up with a new way to treat the water before they discharged it because of new environmental regulations. I got to go to the jobsite once or twice a week to see construction firsthand. I was reviewing and working on piping designs, and I could see how it came together from my weekly tasks on the jobsite. So I got the best of both worlds.
I realized then that I wanted to have a balance of both design and construction in my work. I think being a part of the project on both sides makes it so much more rewarding.
What brought you to U.S. Engineering Innovations?
After my co-op with Ameren, I joined the MCAA (Mechanical Contractor Association of America) club at Mizzou. The first semester I was a fly-on-the-wall member, but after that I got more involved and eventually helped run the club. I strongly recommend the MCAA club for anyone who is interested in mechanical contracting or the construction side of engineering.
When I was more involved I went to California for the MCAA’s Great Futures Forum, which is an annual event at which mechanical contracting companies can host booths with information, and they accept resumes and do interviews. It’s a great opportunity to network and learn about companies in the industry, and it’s the place where MCAA kicks off their annual student competition. That’s where I met Desiree Sharp (Recruiting Manager, U.S. Engineering Company Holdings) and Adam Provost (Operations Director, U.S. Engineering Construction), and that led to my internship.
How did your internship prepare you for the job you’re doing now?
Honestly, the last part of the internship was pretty similar to what I did in the first year of my job with Innovations. My manager, Jarrod Foster, gave me a lot of responsibilities and encouraged me to challenge myself, to take on difficult projects and tasks. Even when I was intern, I put together budget estimates for general contractors inquiring about mechanical construction costs, and I got familiar with the tools we use internally to spearhead budgets.
Obviously my coworkers would review my work and answer questions I had, and Jarrod would go through the budget with me, so I wasn’t just giving a totally way-off number. I also got to work on projects that were ongoing, smaller pieces of larger projects.
And after your internship, after you accepted the position at U.S. Engineering Innovations, that’s when you started the journey toward the FE exam?
I took the test about six months into my career at U.S. Engineering Innovations, and the company was very supportive. They encouraged me to take the test; they paid for it; they paid for prep materials. The company is invested in professional development. Jarrod was very supportive, helping me balance workload with test prep, and there were two other people on my team interested in taking the FE exam, so we had a study group. We met once a week to work through problems, to ask each other questions, so in addition to test prep and support, the process had a natural element of team building.
Tom Walsh holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Missouri. Starting as an intern at U.S. Engineering, he has been a Project Engineer at U.S. Engineering Innovations since January 2020.