Advice & insights: masterclasses from industry leaders

Mastering the Blueprint: A Q&A with Seasoned Civil Drafter and Designer Sam Baker

Sam Baker

Sam Baker

CIVIL DRAFTER / DESIGNER

  • Most people are not aware that the term civil drafting could involve working on roadways, utilities, subdivisions, railways, parks, water tanks, bridges, and land surveying projects.
  • The drafting software makes it much easier for beginners to start work in the Civil Engineering field, but it might create a disconnect between the software use and the understanding of the industry.
  • I believe we are going to see a paradigm shift towards integrating AI with each of the processes of completing projects within the Civil Engineering industry. 
  • A Civil Designer needs to know how to work hard, be dependable, be honest, able to communicate effectively and be efficient.
  • People who become experts in drafting software, work efficiently and understand the Civil Engineering and Land Surveying industry will continue to be sought after.
  • Always be willing to learn. At one point in my career, I allowed my pride to blind my learning abilities, and it caused me to become stagnant for a time. Since then, I have always tried to be open to learning.

Can you walk us through the pivotal moments or experiences that shaped your career?

“I earned my Associate of Science degree from Utah Valley University, and I signed up for the drafting program at UVU. While in the program I was offered a drafting job in the Civil Engineering industry. I knew almost nothing about the Civil Engineering world. I started laying out lots and roadways for new subdivisions that would eventually become Eagle Mountain, Utah. I learned to love the industry. 

I started working full-time with Hubble Engineering and had the opportunity to work closely with the Survey Manager, Gary W., and the CAD Manager/Civil Designer, Tyler Turner. Both became great mentors. Once I learned everything that I “thought” I needed to, I started searching for job promotions through other engineering companies before I finally was able to become the CAD Manager/Assistant Engineer with Ubora Engineering. Unfortunately, I was laid off during the housing market crash in 2008. 

Sam Baker at his last year of teaching

The next two years were challenging. I ended up having to work outside of the Civil Engineering industry until I found a position opened in Vernal, Utah with Uintah Engineering and Land Surveying (UELS) that was focused on the Oil & Gas industry using the Land Development software prior to using Civil 3D. At one point, there were about 75 drafters/engineers that I would help with software training and troubleshooting problems that occurred in their AutoCAD drawings. 

UELS helped me start teaching part-time at Uintah Basin Technical College (UBTech) at night. The Oil & Gas industry was starting to crash, so I found a job in the Salt Lake City area with AWA Engineering. While there, I was contacted by UBTech offering me a full-time teaching position for the Civil Drafting program. 

After almost 8 years of being a teacher, I returned to the engineering industry. First, a brief time with CRS Engineering and then with my current employer, Jones and DeMille Engineering working as a Senior Civil Designer. This has been my favorite position and company that I have worked for thus far.”


You’ve held various roles in the industry. Which position had the most profound impact on your career, and why? 

“There were so many valuable lessons learned from every position and company worked for. The one that had the most profound impact on my career would be working with Hubble Engineering as a Survey Technician and Civil Drafter. I learned the foundational principles that establish the backdrop for almost every Civil Engineering job, an accurate existing topography, and a legal survey boundary. The importance of each survey point, line, dot, circle, block, etc. represented something in the real world, had a purpose, and needed to be treated carefully, and with understanding. Also, I had the chance to see the amazing software abilities of AutoCAD and Land Development Desktop through Tyler Turner. He helped inspire me to want to learn everything I could about the software.”


What inspired your transition from full-time industry work to teaching, and what significant lessons did you learn from being a civil drafting instructor?

“I had always enjoyed teaching my co-workers and was an effective teacher. However, once I started teaching in a classroom setting with secondary and adult students, I realized quickly that I wasn’t a good teacher. I had so many awesome instructors and teachers over my secondary and post-secondary career, that I knew what an excellent teacher should look like. That was my new goal, to become the best teacher possible.

I started watching and learning from teachers at the high school and at the college where I worked. I was also watching teachers on YouTube to get more ideas on how to manage a classroom and deliver an effective curriculum. 

The significant lessons I learned from teaching as a Civil Drafter instructor were numerous: 

  • Every student added a different dynamic and possible challenge to the overall classroom management and learning experience. 
  • Every class, trimester, and year was different from the previous. Each time I had to adjust and accommodate for the needs of the students. 
  • If I was open to learning, I would be able to learn new things every day from my students. 
  • Students can become the best teachers for other students.”

Insights About Civil Drafting and Design

In your experience, how has technology, particularly software like AutoCAD and Civil 3D, changed the landscape of civil drafting and design?

“While in the drafting program at UVU, I was given the opportunity to do hand drafting on the drafting tables before we could use the drafting software. There are some very specific drafting/drawing skills, standards, lettering, and important lessons taught, that unfortunately can’t be learned easily in other ways.

Due to the change in almost every drafting program to move away from hand drafting to software, the students need to learn the purpose of standards, lettering heights and styles, leader line locations, dimensioning, and arrowheads, and understand the importance of clean drafting work. They also need to learn the importance of communicating effectively from conceptual design to the final design plans to their co-workers, supervisors, clients, and agencies for approval.

AutoCAD and Civil 3D are excellent software drafting packages. The easiness of students/employees to learn how to use the beginning portions of AutoCAD would be about 90 hours and Civil 3D around 120 hours. The drafting software makes it much easier for beginners to start work in the Civil Engineering field, but it might create a disconnect between the software use and the understanding of the industry. 

There’s so much information about the Civil Engineering and Land Surveying industry that is more easily learned on the job. People who become experts in drafting software,  work efficiently and understand the Civil Engineering and Land Surveying industry will continue to be sought after.

AutoCAD, Civil 3D, and other drafting software have numerous capabilities that most users never realize their full potential because it doesn’t impact them in the workplace and/or they don’t need those features for their current job. In the end, the drafting software packages are simply a tool to help deliver the final product for a client in the most efficient and accurate way possible.”


What are some common misconceptions or challenges that newcomers face when entering civil drafting?

“Most people are not aware that the term civil drafting could involve working on roadways, utilities, subdivisions, railways, parks, water tanks, bridges, and land surveying projects. It’s possible that someone may feel overwhelmed with the complexity of the work. It can also be difficult physically to sit at a workstation for 8 to 10 hours a day. Even with the drafting software, there is still a lot of typing involved.”


How has your role as a CAD Manager/Assistant Engineer contributed to your understanding of project management within the industry?

“Civil Drafting and Civil Design work are challenging, physically and mentally demanding, and can become very difficult depending on the project and those working on the project. Sometimes, a Civil Designer can whip through a project and have been extremely successful with time management. That same designer can end up struggling with a similar project due to other things that are not seen by management. 

Project management is a balance between meeting deadlines, keeping clients happy, keeping employees busy, and staying within budget. The challenge is to realize the capabilities and limitations of every designer that has been assigned to the project. It’s important to keep in mind the health and well-being of your co-workers.”


What trends or advancements do you foresee shaping the future of civil drafting and design in the next decade?

“It’s becoming very common for the beginning civil drafter/civil designer to have graduated from an accredited 4-year Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. As they work towards their professional Civil Engineering license, they are learning the basics of civil drafting and moving on to civil design work, and eventually learning how to become project managers as they use the drafting software. 

I believe we are going to see a paradigm shift towards integrating AI with each of the processes of completing projects within the Civil Engineering industry. Civil Drafting will become simply known as Civil Designing and the users will need to understand how to use AI to complete projects in a more efficient way. 

I believe more of the projects will be required to have GPS guidance equipment on the job site. Agencies will start to move away from the traditional construction plan sets and start to go to design submittal only. As the technology continues to improve, I also see Augmented Reality with graphical touch screens to allow 3D editing design on the fly to become very popular.”

Advice for Aspiring Civil Drafters and Designers


What do you think are the essential skills or qualities needed to succeed as a civil drafter/designer today?

“A Civil Designer needs to know how to work hard, be dependable, be honest, able to communicate effectively, be efficient, and give their employer the best workday they can give every day. The Civil Designer needs to learn AutoCAD and Civil 3D software, or similar design software used in the industry they want to be employed in. The software operations need to be memorized and become second nature, so they aren’t wasting time. They need to be able to learn new things and be able to accept change, including learning new software.”


Could you share a strategy or habit that has helped you continually grow and adapt in the profession? Are there any resources you’d recommend for staying up to date with the latest trends in the industry?

“Always be willing to learn. At one point in my career, I allowed my pride to blind my learning abilities, and it caused me to become stagnant for a time. Since then, I have always tried to be open to learning, even from others who don’t have my skills and abilities. When I would help my co-workers or students, I would watch how they were drafting, and if they did something I wasn’t aware of or a different way of drafting I would ask them to show me again. There is always something of value we can learn from those around us. 

A photo of Sam's previous student Chantz Tribe and I in front of the billboard they were shown on for UBTech.

When a new version of software becomes available, I try to run through the new updates and find ways to utilize the new tools if it will benefit my projects and/or company. For the AutoDesk software, I will do searches within the forums on their website and find YouTube videos that match my search. In addition, I watch the AutoDesk University videos to see what is new.

I follow different groups on LinkedIn to help me stay current with the latest technology, construction, and software trends.”


Lastly, what’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received in your career that you’d like to pass on to those just starting?

“I had the opportunity to work with a 90-year-old Civil Designer who had a lifetime of knowledge. At his birthday celebration, he said, “These are the three most important things in life: Attitude, Attitude, Attitude.” 

Always be grateful for the opportunities to learn, grow, and change. Always be willing to learn positive things from those around you. And teaching is one of the greatest ways to learn the subject better.”


Sam Baker's headshot

Reader Q & A with Sam Baker


“I start the day by checking my work emails and responding to those as necessary. Open up the Civil 3D software. Finish up what I was working on the day before. Check in with my supervisor and/or project manager and give them an update on the project. Get the projects needed to be worked on for the day and possibly throughout the week. I usually work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Hours may vary due to appointments, meetings, and site visits. Sometimes there are deadlines that cause me to work late nights until the project gets done.  

Every day can vary, depending on what projects need to be worked on at that time. There’s usually a variety of projects that I get to work on.”


“I have seen people hired off the street, trained, and start a career in civil drafting. I have also helped people go from a technical college certificate to getting hired into the industry.

It’s common for civil drafters/civil designers to finish an accredited 4-year bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. The students usually work during the summers as interns at a Civil Engineering firm. After some years of mentorship and passing certain tests, they can then become a Professional Engineer in the Civil Engineering industry. That gives them the ability to move from Engineer-In-Training to Assistant Engineer, Project Engineer, Project Manager, and any corporate management positions that they work towards. They also could start their own company as licensed professionals.”


“There used to be a high demand during the housing boom. Once the housing market crashed in 2008, the demand was at an all-time low in my lifetime. We have seen the demand start to come back. However, Civil Engineering firms prefer individuals who have graduated college and are pursuing a professional license to start off as a Civil Drafter/Civil Designer.  

There still may be some Civil Engineering firms that seek out Civil Drafters/Designers, but I believe that will continue to decline. One unknown is whether the AI integration will cause the demand to come back for software and designer experts versus Engineers-In-Training. If that occurs, then the demand for Civil Drafters/Civil Designers will become exponential.”


Sam Baker

About the Author

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