Passing the PE exam on the first try is no small feat. But passing it on the first try after being out of the industry for 10 years and as a single, full-time working mother of two kids, that’s a huge deal. And guess what? Today’s guest did just that! 😲 In this episode, Erin Friednman unpacks all the aspects and the lessons that went into and came out of this incredible journey.
Tune in to Learn:
- The challenges she faced getting back into the civil engineering industry after 10 years
- The single most important tip for the FE Exam is to boost your chances of passing
- How she passed her PE exam on her first try as a single, working mother of two kids
- How much study time should you put into PE exam prep?
- The resources she used to prepare for and crush the Transportation depth exam
- A simple exam-taking strategy most PE takers neglect on exam day — but shouldn’t!
- 3 ways you can make a comeback into the industry — even if lacking the technical skills
- The most underrated benefit of taking the PE exam to your career, even if you don't pass
- A key element of your exam prep that's key to passing
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Transcript of Show
You can get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, what's up everybody? Isaac here with Civil Engineering Academy. Excited to be with you on another sweet podcast episode. I'm excited today. I bring on a really good guest, Erin Friedman. She actually passed her PE exam recently despite, you know, huge obstacles in her own life. She's a single mother of two and being able to balance that. Not only that, but she was out of the industry for almost 10 years. And being able to find her way back into the civil engineering industry, overcoming the hurdle of passing the PE exam and finding a career that she really likes and really enjoys and starting that whole journey.
Isaac Oakeson: But, just a fascinating story with Erin. I think you're really gonna enjoy this. It's very inspiring. For anyone that's in the same shoes or if you're just trying to -- You know, struggle through the PE exam itself, definitely some good tips here for you as well. So, Erin Friedman's gonna be coming up right after this. You're really gonna enjoy it. So stick around to the end. See you!
Isaac Oakeson: All right, Erin. We are live. Thank you for jumping on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. I appreciate you taking the time to do this.
Erin Friedman: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate you having me.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah! I am wearing the Hawaiian shirt because we actually have spring weather. I'm in Utah and we've had, like, record snowfall. So it's been great.
Erin Friedman: We've been also having random snow. Finally gonna be a nice weekend.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome.
Erin Friedman: So, gonna be excited about that.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, I always like to start these just talking about your own journey into civil engineering. So, you've got a really inspiring story I think will resonate with a lot of mothers that are out there or women that are trying to get, you know, back into civil engineering. But why don't we just start with that? You know, how did you get into this world of civil engineering? Why did you go that route?
Erin Friedman: I think just as a kid, I always loved construction. I loved architecture. I loved buildings. I loved rocks. So it's like, all the things kind of led me down that path. I went to school, I went to college. My first couple years didn't really know what I wanted to do. Kind of tried a few different majors. And then, after a couple years decided, "You know, I think I wanna be a structural engineer." So I was like, "Oh, that's Civil engineering. Let's go do that." So transferred to a different college where I got focused and pursued that degree and that's what led me down that path.
Isaac Oakeson: So, take me through, maybe, the next steps of life because you graduated, you finished school, and then, I don't --You kind of left the industry a little bit, right? What happened after that?
Erin Friedman: I took a big detour. Well, I worked very briefly for a small structural engineering firm in Sacramento, California. I'm from California originally. And yeah, after, I don't know, six months or so, was given an opportunity to help run a family business, a custom cabinetry business. So moved out to Eastern Oregon and did that. Yeah, it was quite a change. But got a lot of experience from that phase of life. So we ran this manufacturing business, I was kind of like Head Designer. It was really -- I just loved designing and I loved drawing, so it was kind of right up my alley.
Isaac Oakeson: Was that like a lot of AutoCAD use with that?
Erin Friedman: It was actually different software. There's special software for cabinetry design called Cabinet [inaudible], I think. It's been a while.
Isaac Oakeson: I was just curious.
Erin Friedman: Yeah, it was kind of cool because it would do all of the drafting and design work, but then would also produce like assembly drawings and cut sheets and all that to build from. So it was really cool. So it was kind of like I was still doing some engineering. Like, creating like plans for them to build from and getting to watch it be built. That was actually really cool. It was good experience and I learned a lot about business and how to run a shop.
Erin Friedman: We ended up selling the business after a few years and then I moved to Boise, Idaho, and worked for one of our clients, actually, a remodeling company out there. And I worked there for about a year as a designer, assistant designer and then ended up having my first kid and decided that time to stay home. And 10 years later I was still home with kids, two kids. So, yeah, moved around a little bit and landed in Denver, Colorado. So it's where I am now.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome. So got two kids, were staying at home raising them, and you've been doing that for -- You know, you were doing that for about 10 years or so. And then you, then you jumped back into the industry. What challenges did you have getting back into the civil engineering industry?
Erin Friedman: Well, I guess a challenge was just even thinking that it was possible. I totally thought that ship had sailed and I said, "No way. I'm so far removed from engineering." So yeah, I think it was just my own belief and that it was possible to get back into it was my biggest challenge. But I knew someone that worked in the industry and told me they're hiring and looking for good people. "You should just give it a shot." And I'm like, "You're crazy. What are you talking about?" You know? But, yeah. Been history from there. That's my biggest challenge. It's just myself and thinking like there's no way, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Was that mental challenge?
Erin Friedman: Yeah. Like I don't belong in civil engineering. That's not what I've done.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay.
Erin Friedman: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, and I think a lot of people, probably in your shoes, feel the same way. And they feel like they can't get back into the industry even if they've been out, being a mother or staying at home. And, I mean, you're proof that that's not true. It can happen.
Erin Friedman: Yeah. It can.
Isaac Oakeson: So, I guess some of the other hurdles though is, you know, the exams that engineers have to take. Maybe you could walk through that a little bit. The first exam that most engineers, you know, whether they're in school or sometimes if they don't do it in school, take it afterwards, is the FE exam. What was your -- You know, what was your timeline for taking that? Any tips around that one?
Erin Friedman: Well, I was smart and I did it right after college. Like, right in my senior year I believe I did it. So, I think it was 2002. It's been a long time. I don't remember much of it. I just remember that I did it right after college, right in my senior year. And I remember thinking it was really hard and there was no way I passed, and ended up passing somehow.
Erin Friedman: So, thank goodness, because that one I think would be really hard to take now. I mean, not impossible, but you know, it would be a challenge. So I guess my advice on taking that one is do it soon. Even if you don't know what you wanna do with your future. If you've got that degree, just kick that one in as soon as you're out of college.
Isaac Oakeson: Knock it out.
Erin Friedman: Knock it out.
Isaac Oakeson: And many people say, I mean, the longer you're out of school and you postpone the FE, they'll say that the FE is harder than the PE because, you know, you're going back to, you know, math and really hard topics.
Erin Friedman: Exactly! A lot of theory are things that are just more -- Yeah, a little more broad. So I'm glad that I did that.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome.
Erin Friedman: So I just recommend to just get that one out of the way if you can.
Isaac Oakeson: Ok. Good.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay, let's fast forward then. You're jumping back in the industry, when did you know that, "Hey, I gotta take the PE. That's gonna launch my career?" And how did you tackle that?
Erin Friedman: Yeah. I mean, after probably a year or two, I knew it was on the horizon. You know, working where I'm at now. I've been where I'm at for four and a half years or so. Almost five. So a couple years in and I'm like, "It's on my brain," you know. I know I gotta do it. But I'm also thinking, "How am I gonna manage this?" Like, there's no way.
Erin Friedman: So, you know, years just kind of keep coming and going as they do. And then, you know -- I don't know, I just told myself, you know, when the time was right, I would kind of know. I mean, there's never a right time. I feel like there's an opportune time, you know? When you're ready to really tackle that. So I just kind of gained as much of the experience as I could and decided that when I felt like the time was right that I would do that.
Erin Friedman: And that just happened to be in this last [year], right after the holidays, you know? Like, we go through the Christmas and New Year's and it's just craziness and you got so much going on at home and then work. And after that settled down, I was like, "I think this year is the year. I'm gonna give it a shot."
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. So you only took it one time and you were able to pass. What was your study habits like? Because you're single mother, you have two kids, and I'm sure you're balancing all of that. What was that like for you?
Erin Friedman: Well, I think what you have to do is you have to manage your time. Like, it's kind of funny because you have to have some really, like, rigid time management, but you also have to be flexible because things come up, you know? Sometimes I [inaudible]. Going into it, I knew -- Like, after holidays going into winter. Winter is not a time of the year that I enjoy very much. So I was like, "Winter's a great time to study for me because I am not a skier."
Isaac Oakeson: You like the sun?
Erin Friedman: Yeah, I love the sun. Summer is when I thrive. So I knew I had great plans for summer and that's not when I'm gonna want to study. So winter was definitely a time.
Erin Friedman: And for study habits, I knew like I gotta give in like a couple hours during the weekdays, you know? That was the goal: try to get at least two hours in every weekday and then really get some good chunks of study time on the weekends. Which is tough, but, you know, it's temporary, you know? And that's what I just kept telling myself, "this is temporary, it's not forever." And just give it a try and see where it goes.
Erin Friedman: So yeah, study habits were -- Weekdays were tough. I would block out on my calendar at work like, [inaudible]. Like make it look like I'm in a meeting or something so that, you know, I'm not available during this time. So I would take it on a conference room or something or just sit at my desk and watch some videos or do some practice problems and maybe try to do another hour after work. But, you know, I had kids that needed rides everywhere that I had to get home for, you know? I needed to be at this and that. So I didn't have all this flexibility after work. So tried to get as much aid as I could.
Isaac Oakeson: How much time do you think you put into it, do you think?
Erin Friedman: After the whole thing? I don't know.
Isaac Oakeson: Like, two hours a day and four on the weekend.
Erin Friedman: I would try to get a couple hours a day during the week. Like, every weekday. There were definitely some days that that just didn't happen. And, you know, I rolled those days. The weekends I definitely did bigger chunks. I tried to get like six hours both Saturday and Sunday. Six to eight sometimes, you know? It just depends on how the week went. If I didn't get a lot in the week, I maybe would add more on the weekend.
Isaac Oakeson: Big sacrifice.
Erin Friedman: Yeah, it is a sacrifice. But I felt like if I was gonna go for it, you gotta go for it, you know? Just go for the time that was advice [inaudible] coworkers. You just gotta put in the time. I knew that time is precious.
Isaac Oakeson: What depth exam did you take?
Erin Friedman: Transportation.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Definitely falls in line with what you're already doing.
Erin Friedman: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: People love to know like how you tackled that depth section. Were you able to get like codes and standards from coworkers? Were you blown away by how much theory there was on the exam or was there not a lot of theory? What kind of things did you experience?
Erin Friedman: There were some conceptual, like, theory problems. More I'd say in the morning than in the afternoon. But as far as studying for depth, yeah, definitely get every reference manual that they're gonna provide you. No matter -- Just figure out how you're gonna get it. Thankfully at my job I have access to all of those, so I downloaded them all as PDFs, you know, and only used those to study, plus the reference manual that you get.
Erin Friedman: So I didn't use anything outside of that. So getting really familiar with those manuals was pretty critical. I was already familiar with like the AASHTO Green Book for my job, but I don't do a lot of traffics, so I didn't know like the Highway Capacity Manual very well. So those are the ones that -- Yeah, just getting really like familiar with where things are, what chapters are kind of important, and using those as your main study sources is pretty critical becasue you need to know where stuff is.
Isaac Oakeson: Were there any surprises or did you feel confident when you left the exam?
Erin Friedman: There were definitely problems that had me thinking afterwards, you know? That I kept thinking about in the middle of the night. Like, "That one". But yeah, I mean, I didn't feel like -- I didn't leave the exam feeling like I totally bombed or anything. But I also didn't wanna feel like, "Oh yeah, I nailed it," because they have a way of tricking you, you know? And they put answers in there that match, you know, if you did this wrong, you know, interpretation, there's their answer. So you see it and you're like, "Oh I got it!"
Erin Friedman: But I guess, you know, reading the questions thoroughly is key. And I used every minute of the eight hours that I was given. I know it's like you both [inaudible], but I used every minute and I went through. And I caught a few, I think, that I misinterpreted and was able to crack. So, you know, it's not a race. Take your time.
Isaac Oakeson: Read through that problem.
Erin Friedman: Read through those problems, like, a lot.
Isaac Oakeson: I think that's a great advice for, you know, anyone taking the PE exam. So appreciate you sharing some of those too.
Erin Friedman: You know, as a mother and staying home with kids, what advice would you share with, I guess, other mothers that are in the same boat and looking to try to return to the industry?
Erin Friedman: Yeah, that's a good question because it's really -- It's tough. You know, you feel removed from the industry and you're not sure you belong anymore. I guess my advice is, like, you belong. Like, you can make a comeback. Anybody can get back to this. You just gotta believe in yourself and, you know, know that while you may not have all the technical skills yet, you have a ton of life skills. Like, you're bringing something to the table that, you know, not everybody can bring.
Erin Friedman: So you have skills that, you know, are valuable to a company. You know, technical skills can be taught and trained. They're looking for good people, you know? Better assets to the company. So don't discredit yourself and what you you've done. Staying home with kids isn't a walk in the park either; soft. You know, it definitely builds character.
Isaac Oakeson: And I think there's so many skills you could translate into the workplace too.
Erin Friedman: So many! You know, management. You've got management. If you can manage a household, you can --
Isaac Oakeson: You can manage conflict.
Erin Friedman: Yes! Exactly. Exactly. So, you know, you bring a lot to the table. I mean, I think, you know, making connections with people is also really important. That's kind of what got me back in was knowing someone in the industry that, you know, even put the idea in my head that I could get back into it. So, you know, connecting with people and then, you know, finding mentors and people that believe in you, that helps too.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice.
Erin Friedman: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: And you know, I can tell that like, when someone instills a little bit of positivity or confidence in you, it's like, you know, all of a sudden that door opens to go explore it. So, even though you've been out of the industry a while, it's like, "Hey, you can still be a great contributor here." And from there, you know, it could take off. You know, inspiring people a little bit and being a mentor for the next person, you know? I consider you and what you've gone through definitely could be a mentor to a lot of people. So, it's really good.
Erin Friedman: Yeah. And I'd be honored. You know, I always discredit myself and be like, "Oh, you're just (...)," you know? Any person can do this. But yeah, I definitely do have something to offer in that I do come from a unique background and I do hope that I can inspire people to know that it's not an impossible task.
Isaac Oakeson: I know. Even before we jumped on, Erin was like, "Well, it's not a big deal anymore." And no, it's a big deal. You're a single mom, you're passed this.
Erin Friedman: I'm not a big, like, self-booster, but yeah, it is a big deal. I have to keep reminding myself, "Don't forget." Like, "That was not an easy bite that you did." So yeah --
Isaac Oakeson: Yes, definitely.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, let's fast forward now. You're working now. I'm assuming you still have challenges. You know, you're working and you're still a mother. So you're still dealing with, with all that kind of challenge. I mean, do you have any tips for women in the industry? Have you had any challenges being in the civil engineering world that you could share with other women that are in this field?
Erin Friedman: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely -- It is tough. Like, I struggled big time with, like, imposter syndrome and then feeling like I don't belong. You know, that kind of thing. And maybe that applies to more than just women. But, you know, I think definitely making those connections and finding maybe other women that you work with, you know, that you can lean on, that you can ask questions, and, you know, that can support you. And mentoring newer women that come into the industry, too. Like, that definitely helps.
Isaac Oakeson: Good tips. Well, also, now that you're working, I mean, has there been a favorite project that you've worked on that has stood out in your mind? You're like, you know, "I feel accomplished."
Erin Friedman: Yeah. You know, the last project that I just came up, it was a great experience. I learned so much. It was, I-17 in Arizona, a portion about 44 miles or so between Phoenix and Flagstaff that we widened the highway, adding a lane each direction. A portion of it was actually flex lanes.
Erin Friedman: That project I started on the proposal phase when we were trying to get he project and we ended up winning and I saw it all the way through to [ínaudible]. So when it got released to construction, and it was probably about a couple years at least that I was on that project. I got to -- it's kind of funny because I designed this one little side rail; just that. You know, it wasn't part of the main highway, but you know, it was a [inaudible].
Erin Friedman: It had a little bit of everything and everyone thought, "This would be a great, you know, starter project for Erin. She can take this on." It actually ended up being quite challenging [inaudible]. So, I learned a lot and I have to thank a lot of people that helped me through that. But you know, it was a whole realignment and the profile, it had an overpass. It had just had a little bit of everything. You know, you've got Right of Away and constraints. It had walls, it had -- Yeah, lots of calcs that needed to be done.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fantastic.
Erin Friedman: So it was first such a little road
Isaac Oakeson: It was a big headache.
Erin Friedman: It was a little bit of a headache, but it was good. Looking back, it was a great learning experience. I learned so much from that. So that's been definitely one of, I guess, my favorite project so far. I haven't been on too many, but it definitely helped build my confidence and know that "I can do this," you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Well, this has been great. Thank you for sharing all these tips with us and inspiring women and mothers, you know, to look at coming back to the industry and that you can provide value here for sure. Is there a good way or best way for people to connect with you if they had questions or further wanted to reach out to you?
Erin Friedman: Yeah, I would say probably LinkedIn. I'm not -- LinkedIn, that would probably be the easiest way.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay.
Erin Friedman: And I'm on social media, but not as, you know, active but kind of come and go. So, but like LinkedIn, I definitely checked that.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. We'll make sure we link that and if people have questions, they can reach out to you. We love doing that.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, Erin, is there any other tips, advice, anything that you wanna kind of end this with?
Erin Friedman: Let's see. I think [inaudible] is just, you know, always keep your perspective on what's important and know that this is just a test. Like, it isn't -- You know, going into this, I knew that I could have crapped under the pressure that it put on myself if I didn't keep [inaudible]. So knowing like, "Hey, if you don't pass this, you can always try again."
Erin Friedman: And it's not a waste of time, I guess. That was also on my concerns. I was like, "I'm gonna put all this time in the studying and if I don't pass, I'll just have wasted all that time." We don't actually waste that time. Like, I learned a ton, you know, studying. So at the end of the day, I came away smarter, you know? And I felt more confident in my job, you know? Using the manuals and knowing where things were. So, there's still a benefit even if you don't pass that first time.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome.
Erin Friedman: You know, just keep your perspective, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: And earlier we talked about some of the helps that you had taking a course. You found Civil Engineering Academy's free resources online well before that too. We're always a big advocate of you know, getting help when you need it. And you know, we're definitely a resource that's available to people as well. So check that out at civilengineeringacademy.com.
Erin Friedman: Your free content is amazing. I can only imagine the, you know, subscription or pay content is. One of the things that I think was really critical in my studying was a practice exam. I know you've been mentioning that a lot lately on social media and stuff. But, so key.
Erin Friedman: Because the first -- I think it was maybe two or three weekends before my exam, I decided I'm gonna sit down and do an actual four-hour time breadth portion test. And it was eye-opening to me. Like, not just the questions but the stamina it took to sit for four hours and do that. And then the next day I did depth. In one weekend, I actually did them. You know, two four-hour tests. And then the next weekend I did it again. And then went into my exam, not completely blind to like, "This is what it's going to take." You know, you have to keep your cool. Don't panic, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: That is true.
Erin Friedman: So the practice tests, you know, I think you offer some of those, I think it's invaluable. So during that time, practice tests.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, we got a couple, we've got ones you can download. We even came out with a CBT simulator. So, if you wanna really put yourself through it, go check it out.
Erin Friedman: That's exactly how it's gonna be. Because I don't know, I'm the type of person that likes to know what I'm getting into. So, if I'm like totally going in blind, that makes me uneasy. So it was kind of nice. And I caught, you know, some things that I made some silly mistakes on in those practice tests and was able to not make those the second time around. Like, reading a footnote at the end of the table that you maybe missed, you know?
Erin Friedman: There's, there's always these little things that you'll be like, "Oh, I didn't read that article note." So I'm glad to catch those before going into the test. So I do highly recommend a practice test.
Isaac Oakeson: Thank you!
Isaac Oakeson: Erin, Thank you for doing this. Great advice for the PE, great advice for everything else we've touched on today. Thank you for doing this and hope you have a great weekend.
Erin Friedman: Absolutely! Thank you. You too.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. See you.
Erin Friedman: Bye.
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