Essentials for New Engineers: Lessons from The Utility Expo



“Most engineering students spend their time studying engineering standards and math,” says Doug Houseman, Principal Consultant at Burns & McDonnell. “They need that knowledge, but they also need knowledge of equipment. They may get an hour of class time for that, which leaves a giant gap in their knowledge base. They don’t know a bucket wheel from a backhoe. The Utility Expo is where they can get that gap filled.”

Electrician in bucket of articulated boom lift is repairing electrical transmission on power poles against blue sky backgroundHouseman has attended several The Utility Expo shows. He often took other employees with him to help them appreciate all there was to see and do. Houseman was a presenter for two sessions at the record-breaking Utility Expo 2023: Everything You Need to Know as a New Engineer, Parts 1 and 2. He says there are three key considerations:

1. Know what’s available to do which tasks. For example, he says there are nine different ways to run underground utilities, each best suited to specific circumstances.

2. Have and show respect for operators. No, they don’t have engineering degrees, but a skilled operator is a huge asset on any job and can work through the types of problems that commonly crop up, problems the plan never anticipated.

3. Understand choices. A lot of work can be done with rental equipment or subcontractors. Know the costs and benefits of each approach. “And don’t get too lean. Make sure you have the equipment on hand to promptly handle emergencies.”

He says the best overall advice is to get out in the field and see how things actually get done, “but new engineers may not get out in the field for the first several years they’re on the job; they spend that time doing more mundane tasks. The Utility Expo gives them hands-on experience that benefits them and the employer.” He says too few firms see the value of sending engineers to the show; they think only operators can benefit. “But even engineers who will spend their entire careers in their offices need to know about equipment, attachments and procedures. There are jobs that now require only 25% of the time they did in the 1980s because of advances in equipment and technology, all of which are on display at The Utility Expo.”

Houseman cites examples of knowledge that can be gained only on the worksite, such as the setting of poles in soft soils. It’s not merely the lift capacity of the pole-setter, but also the reach. Bringing the equipment too close to the hole compresses the soil and it swells into the hole, creating an obstruction. Another example is vegetation management, which is often not as straightforward as the textbooks would suggest. Experts at The Utility Expo will help new engineers anticipate such problems and plan solutions using the right equipment.

Houseman also freely admits that he learned things at The Utility Expo, despite having been in the business for decades. One example was the effect of nozzles and flow rates in vac extraction as that equipment continues to get refined.

Attend the next Utility Expo show: October 7-9, 2025 in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A. 

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