Eric works in the consulting side of engineering. He has experience working at various engineering firms and is currently a Vice President at Donohue & Associates. Eric is an Environmental Engineer and his speciality relates to water and wastewater treatment plants. Eric provides valuable insights on how he spends his time and how more junior environmental engineers spend their time based on his 27 years of experience and as a current leader of 25 engineers that report to him.

Date of Interview:July 13, 2021

Interviewee:Eric Cockerill

Basic Information

Current employer

Answer: Donohue & Associates

Industry you work in

Answer: Professional Services

City you work in

Answer: Our office is in downtown Chicago and we also have one in Naperville, IL.

Compensation

[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from Glassdoor.com data. These averages come from compensation data that is self-reported by employees of various companies.]

$209,345 is the average base salary for a Vice President of Engineering in the United States (not limited to only Environmental Engineers).

$71,891 is the average base salary for an Environmental Engineer with 0-1 year of experience in the United States.

Experience

Years at your current job

Answer: 9 years

Years working in your field, including time at previous employers

Answer:27 years

Where did you work before your current job?

Answer: I worked at three other similar firms. The last one was AECOM. Before that CDM Smith, and I started with a firm called Harza Engineering that merged with another company.

Education/Credentials

Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education? If yes, was it required for your job?

Answer: Yes

What was your college major?

Answer: Environmental Engineering Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s degree.

What college did you go to?

Answer: Northwestern University for my Bachelor’s degree.

Did you go to graduate school?

Answer: University of Michigan for my Master’s degree.

Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?

Answer: A professional engineering license with State of Illinois which is very typical for working in engineering consulting. I am also Board Certified in Environmental Engineering (BCEE) which I received after about 8 years of experience and taking an exam [certification requirements can be found at the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists website].

Do you work in your field of study?

Answer: Yes

What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?

Answer: Abachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement. In my specialization (treatment plant design), most have a master’s degree, too.

Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?

Answer: The general belief is it helps with the first job out of school. Northwestern’s general reputation and the fact that I had a master’s degree helped with getting my first job.

Job Demand & Stability

How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?

Answer: Istarted my first job two weeks after graduating with my master’s degree. There was a mini recession going on at the time. Once I had the master’s degree, I interviewed at two places and both gave me job offers.

Currently it’s a strong market job for new graduates. It may not be as strong for the entry level [compared to experienced engineers], but generally companies are looking for as much help as they can get. We [environmental engineers] lead the construction market in terms of project development. If the construction industry is hurting, then we are too. But, we generally lag behind the general economy because money is invested to start a project and it can be 2-3 years to go through design and construction.

Did you have any internships?

Answer: I interned for an engineering firm one summer, but don’t think it helped greatly with getting my first job. It helped me determine what kind of organization I wanted to work for. When it comes to infrastructure engineering you can go work for a public entity or go into a consulting engineering firm [Chris’ first role was with an engineering firm].

If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?

Answer: I don’t feel it would be that difficult. All experience levels are in demand now. My biggest concern would be the location of the role.

Advice For Success

What advice would you provide to someone on how to become an environmental engineer?

Answer: Get involved with professional or academic organizations. The advice I give to all my new employees is that getting involved with professional organizations can help with networking and meeting potential and future clients, etc. The people you meet may also be someone that may hire you or you may try to hire in the future. Also, I recommend doing research on whether you want to go into consulting engineering. It’s good to understand how big the firms are, what types of projects each firm does, what clients they serve, etc.

Nature of Job and Schedule

Describe what you do

Answer: I lead the Illinois operations. About 25 people report to me and all their projects. I get to wear many hats in the organization – from managing budgets of the organization, to helping manage what projects people are working on. I monitor schedules with project managers, make sure deliverables on on track, and check in on quality control. That’s about a third of my job. Another third is client management which includes meeting with clients about existing projects, future projects, making sure clients are happy with our services, and selling future work to clients. Lastly, I also manage projects including budgets, schedules, and technical work.

Describe your daily and weekly schedule

Answer: I workMonday-Friday for about nine hours a day. (45/hours a week). Some weeks get busy and I work up to 60 hours but it’s pretty rare. Everybody is working a little extra right now because we’re busy. Entry level roles are pretty much the same schedule. In the summer ,many folks work nine hours per day from Monday-Thursday and only four hours on Fridays.

What parts of your job are repetitive?

Answer: Some things, like the accounting tasks. This include dealing with invoices and managing budgets, but otherwise it feels like there are new challenges everyday.

What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?

Answer: I have to do continuing education for my professional license. Also, there are technical advancements in our industry, so we do a lot of training to stay up to speed on what’s changing and what might work for upcoming projects.

We use AutoCAD software products in our business. Everybody needs to know how to use AutoCAD at our firm. We also do a lot of writing – more than people expect. We use Microsoft Word a lot. Microsoft Excel also gets used quite a bit.

There are different disciplines in engineering. I’m an environmental engineer which is considered a process engineer (meaning the chemistry of water treatment). We also employ a lot of other engineering disciplines like electrical, controls, structural engineers – each other engineering discipline may use its own speciality software.

Describe the setting you work in most

Answer: 80% of my time is spent in the office. I travel between our offices a little more than other staff. 20% of my time is spent at either a construction site or an existing treatment facility. At a construction site, we meet with the contractor and owner about many different issues that come up on a project. There is always something unexpected that comes up. We also do observation, which is watching what contractors are doing, and determining if the practices are acceptable. We communicate with them as needed. At existing sites, we document and understand any existing problems at hand so we can come up with solutions.

Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job

Answer: 40%+ of my job is working with other people. Entry level engineers may be working with other people 30% of the time. We are anti-open office in our field [open floor plans with shared work spaces are not conducive to the focus time an engineer requires]. We try to fit as many individual physical offices into our spaces. We need a lot of focus time. However, there are instances where we must coordinate meetings with people we are working with in other disciplines.

Does your job require travel?

Answer: I travel between our offices. I also spend about 20% of my time going to sites. This is all done via driving. Occasionally, I need to go to MI or WI for projects or to our headquarters there. My job is mostly all done in Illinois, and specifically in Chicago.

Likes/Dislikes/Other

What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?

Answer: I get satisfaction from being involved with a real-world project that actually gets constructed and works how its supposed to.

What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?

Answer: The budget, scheduling expectations, and deadlines are a constant struggle. Some are reasonable and some are unreasonable. As an industry, we have to deal with the lay people component of our clients (e.g. elected board members) that have unreasonable scheduling expectations. The schedules can keep getting compressed. Most of our clients have technical people on staff but many of them do not want to deliver bad news to elected officials, so sometimes we are left with that role.

Does your job provide work/life balance?

Answer: I would say yes, compared to other jobs.

How much time off do you take from work?

Answer: On an annual basis I get 23 days of PTO and I take probably three weeks of that as actual vacation and the rest gets used for things like doctor appointments for my two kids.

Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?

Answer: I have acompany car which is helpful. It’s a little unusual to have in our industry. It was very common when I first started working and a lot of that has gone away.

Why did you pick your job?

Answer: I’m from a small farming town in Michigan. A lot of the generation before me had not gone to college in my town (although my parents did attend college). I didn’t know a lot of people that were using a degree for their job except for teachers. I was into science and math, so the conventional wisdom was to go into engineering. The advice I received was to apply to engineering school directly because it was harder to transfer into engineering if you start with something else. At the end of my freshman year, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but Northwestern had an environmental engineering program where you could focus on water and I thought that was interesting. I was in school at a weird time, when personal computers were not common. There was only one student I knew with a computer at the time, but there were computer labs available. I was actually more interested in computer science at the time, but I didn’t think the job prospects were good. Even by the time I graduated I could tell that was wrong.

What would you do if you had to change careers?

Answer: Other careers look more painful. I took some engineering law courses at Northwestern. I thought they were interesting, but it seemed like you’d have to sit at a desk all the time. I prefer to go out to places rather than sitting at my desk all the time. I do have to do it sometimes, but I still get to go out and visit clients, etc.