Engineering jobs in global development: What you need to know

Members of the Penn State chapter of Engineers Without Borders lead Covenant Preparatory School students in a basic engineering activity building structures out of straws. In international development, opportunities abound for people with an engineering background. Photo by: Penn State / CC BY-NC

In international development, opportunities abound for people with an engineering background. Roles can range from overseeing a bridge construction project in a post-conflict country to expanding telecommunications in a rural area to designing an innovative solution to a water and sanitation challenge.

In essence, engineers can fit into different roles not only because of their skills but also because of their problem-solving mindset.

“Engineering is ultimately about problem solving and that's why we need engineers in all kinds of organizations,” said Khanjan Mehta, founding director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program and assistant professor of engineering design at the Pennsylvania State University.

Demand for engineers is growing in certain sectors. Competent water engineers will always find work as the resource is scarce, and there is also an increasing need for engineers in climate change and energy sectors. Read on to see who hires engineers, trends impacting career opportunities in global development and tips for breaking into this growing sector.

Who’s hiring?

Typically, engineering jobs in global development require a high level of experience, meaning opportunities for early career professionals are few and far between. Recent graduates will likely find more opportunities with private sector firms outside of development where more entry-level positions are available. With some experience under their belt, either domestically but ideally internationally, it can be easier to later make a move to international development organizations, including consultancies, nonprofits and development banks.

Some development consulting firms take on junior engineers.

“We take them on, they join us for a few years and either they move on or maybe they grow with the company, and part of growing with the company is then maybe moving on to the more complex and international projects,” Aaron Imperiale, senior project manager at SUEZ Consulting, told Devex.

Multilateral organizations also recruit early career engineers, often through competitive professional programs, but demand is higher for experienced engineers for both senior specialist posts or consulting assignments.

Nonprofits also contract engineers for their programs. In Sierra Leone, for instance, World Hope International has engaged engineers for its power and information technology projects as well as to develop water systems for hospitals as part of post-Ebola recovery efforts.

Hiring trends

International development has become a “mega freelance market” that favors engineers with 20-30 years of experience, making it challenging for their junior counterparts to compete in the industry, observed Imperiale.

Today, companies that have a small team of five or so and hire freelance experts far outnumber those with in-house specialists that number in the hundreds, he noted.

Apart from favoring experience, the market is now biased toward highly specialized engineers.

Project-based positions are typically funded by government and multilateral donors. As such, contractors are beholden to the requirements set by financing agencies, which are keen to have their projects staffed with people who have many years of experience in a small area of expertise in a particular region and who have managed projects worth millions of dollars. Imperiale said he often wonders if someone like that exists and who’s writing the terms of contracts.

That doesn’t mean engineers with a more generalist background can’t apply for jobs — they can, but the chances of getting them are slim when competing with highly specialized peers.

“The more specialized you are, maybe it limits the amount of possibilities, but there are so many possibilities out there that even if you limit yourself … you'll probably increase your chances of getting in on them as opposed to keeping it more general and being open for many possibilities — ironically you might have a less of a hit rate because the more technical guy or gal might outdo you,” Imperiale said.

Advice from industry veterans

Much like any line of work in global development, it takes more than an undergraduate degree from a reputable institution to successfully launch and advance a career in this industry. Pursue graduate studies — whether that be a master’s degree or a doctorate in engineering or coupling an engineering degree with one in public health, business administration or public administration — because they can make big difference in your potential income, said Mehta, who has written a book about science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers in international development, social innovation and humanitarian aid.

Here are a few more tips from industry veterans:

1. Get involved in nontechnical work.

Early career engineers should consider getting involved in business development or putting together proposals for a few years as a way to understand the inner workings of the industry.

The work includes tailoring the CVs of experts who will be included in bids to the prescribed format of the funding agencies, by cutting down 20 pages of CVs to three pages as required by the European Commission, for instance. While this task does not require an engineering background, the act of reviewing so many CVs and focusing on the most important skills and experiences valued by donors will give you a good guide for your possible career development.

“If you are successful winning a few bids, there's always short-term work available in these projects, maybe you can do even a one-week assignment in one of the projects you've won. That's how you slowly build [your career],” Imperiale said.

2. Cultivate your communication skills.

Engineers may be good with numbers, but some lack people skills. To understand how the industry works, though, they need to get out there and talk with people.

Communication skills are also important in an industry where many organizations engage with ministries and nontechnical experts — and in work that requires drafting documents.

“If you're working in this sector, sure you may design the best technology but ultimately you're going to be writing a lot of reports,” Mehta said. “And if you can't write, you're not going to be successful.”

3. Be aggressive.

You can benefit from reaching out to organizations to make yourself known. Imperiale noted instances when “CVs have come from heaven,” as people with certain qualifications that his company needed for certain bids would just call and send him their CVs.

He also suggested that young engineers without families accept projects that will take them to deserts, jungles or conflict zones, primarily because that’s where the need is.

“Do it when you're young because as time goes on, maybe then you can ease back into lighter assignments,” he added. “But if you prove yourself in the business on some of these tough assignments early on, the better it is for your career.”

This article was last updated on 15 January 2020

About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.