Civil Engineering Topics

Guide to a Career in Civil Engineering

What is Civil Engineering? Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of infrastructure such as roads, buildings, tunnels, airports, dams, bridges, and water supply and sewage systems. One of the oldest of the engineering disciplines, civil engineering encompasses many specialties. The major specialties within civil engineering are structural, water resources, environmental, construction, transportation and geotechnical engineering.

A civil engineering degree provides the application of mathematics and physical science to solve specific, real-world problems in commerce and industry. A strong civil engineering program typically emphasizes the practical use of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus in conjunction with physics, materials science, and chemistry.

Civil engineers work as part of a team with a wide range of backgrounds and often use theory and models to predict how a design will perform. They often test ideas in the field using scale mockups so they can prove new design theories without endangering lives or jeopardizing project budgets.

Trends for Civil Engineering Careers

Civil engineers held about 232,000 jobs in 2000, and-according to the U.S. Department of Labor-employment of civil engineers is expected to increase by 21-35% through 2008. Firms providing engineering consulting services, primarily developing designs for new construction projects, employed a little over half. Almost one third of the jobs were in Federal, State, and local government agencies. The construction and manufacturing industries accounted for most of the remaining employment. Approximately 12,000 civil engineers were self-employed, many as consultants.

Employment of civil engineers is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010. Stimulated by general population growth and an expanding economy, more civil engineers will be needed to design and construct higher capacity transportation, water supply, pollution control systems, and large buildings and building complexes. They also will be needed to repair or replace existing roads, bridges, and other public structures. There may be additional opportunities within non-civil engineering firms, such as management consulting or computer services firms.

Employers are offering rising salaries and sign-on bonuses to compete for graduates of civil engineering programs across the country. There are more civil engineering jobs today than schools can provide graduates for. UCLA civil engineering professor and chair, Dr. Michael K. Stenstrom, says, "With the kind of employment picture being painted at top universities across the country, civil engineering graduates should be dancing in the streets. My overall feel is that it [the employment outlook] is probably the best that I've seen in five or six years."

Career Education in Civil Engineering

Preparing to enter a college degree program

Bachelor of Science (BS)

Civil engineering inherently is an interdisciplinary field. Often, students select courses in any related application areas, such as computer science, applied mathematics, urban and regional planning, economics, chemistry and management. During their degree programs, civil engineering majors learn to take a holistic approach to solving problems. By blending creative use of math and science with a psychological understanding of citizens' needs, future civil engineers can continue to make breakthroughs in design and efficiency.

To receive an accredited B.S. degree, undergraduates complete a sequence of courses, which emphasizes a core of mathematical and computational methods, as well as courses geared more specifically toward the application of these methods to real-world problems. Typically, the student completes this curriculum within four to five years. Almost all entry-level engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree.

Master of Science (MS)

Students wishing to gain further skills in a specialized area of civil engineering may elect to acquire a Master of Science degree. An MS usually requires an additional one to three years of study, depending on the program. This additional degree may be earned after the student has increased his or her skills in a specific specialization. Students may take a wide range of flexible, individually tailored courses of study.

Opportunities exist for interdepartmental and interdisciplinary programs and research in conjunction with other departments such as computer science, mechanical engineering, earth sciences, and management science. Often, an MS program is designed to prepare technically qualified engineers for responsible management roles in the construction and operation of major civil engineering projects.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

PhD degree programs provide the strongest background in theory and practice fundamentals of civil engineering, through formal course and research requirements, and are the highest degree possible. The PhD is a research degree involving novel, creative, and more extensive approaches to problem solving. Students interested in teaching civil engineering at a university or conducting research are usually required to obtain a PhD.

To reap the maximum benefit from a PhD program, the student is encouraged to locate a program in which the research interests of that program's faculty coincide with the interests of the student. Each student's program of study is arranged to suit his or her individual interest and previous education.

Online Degree Programs

Designed for working adults, online degree programs combine the convenience of internet-based home study with the expertise of a school faculty. Students interested in augmenting their bachelor's training can obtain an MS through participation in online coursework or in an individual project under the guidance of an instructor, as administered through video instruction or internet text chat or mailing. A graduate degree is highly recommended, particularly because the job duties of a civil engineer lend themselves to management positions that require it.

What can you do with a University Degree in Civil Engineering?

Career options for aspiring civil engineers Civil engineers are employed primarily by government, utilities, architectural firms, builders, and engineering firms. There are also career options available in education and consulting. Civil engineering is far from your average desk job. Civil engineers are often on the move-working outdoors at construction sites, sometimes in offices, and sometimes in research labs.

Civil engineers work in all parts of the country, and some spend their entire careers traveling and working on different projects. About half of civil engineers work for public authorities. In the private sector, civil engineers can work not only for traditional engineering firms, but also for telecommunication businesses, consulting firms, or even toy and athletic equipment manufacturers.

Some areas of specialization in Civil Engineering:

Transportation engineers help us all move around our communities and our country. They work with local and regional planning boards to identify areas of growth and development. They also look for opportunities to alleviate traffic snarls. Once they understand the needs of drivers in a region, they design plans and develop cost estimates for construction projects.

Once a new plan has been funded, transportation engineers oversee a variety of subcontractors who build new roads, highways, and bridges. Once the building has been completed, transportation engineers assure citizens that roads are properly maintained and repaired as necessary. Throughout the process of serving the public, transportation engineers must comply with a myriad of local and federal policies for safe construction and maintenance.

Structural engineers work with architects and builders to assure that steel and other material used in construction projects exceeds the needs of a given project. With advances in technology and an abundance of creative new building materials, structural engineers work on a wider variety of projects than ever before.

For example, structural engineers work with entertainment companies to design state of the art amusement park rides that hurl patrons through twists and turns at otherwise unsafe speeds.

Structural engineers work in the petroleum industry, developing innovative new offshore oil rigs in locations that were previously considered unstable. These professionals also contribute their efforts to other large construction projects, like inner-city light rail systems and underground supports for new skyscrapers.

Geo-technical engineers help builders excavate underground projects and work with experts who manage challenging land renewal projects. When cities want to expand their underground mass transit systems, the call in geo-technical engineers to oversee the tunneling. As more developers erect skyscrapers and other large buildings in urban centers, geo-technical engineers assure that the bedrock can safely sustain the pressure of new structures and the people they will support.

Outdoors, geo-technical engineers work with emergency management planners to reinforce the banks of flood-prone rivers near new housing developments. They help plan dams and levees to regulate water flow through the area. They even coordinate the placement and the design of landfills and quarries to minimize environmental impact on surrounding homes and businesses.

Hydraulic/Hydrology/Water Resource engineers redirect water to benefit residents and businesses in a community. They construct canals to speed up shipping while preserving the natural flow of wild fish through a region. They build dams that generate vital electricity while opening up potential new parcels of land for development. They design pipelines that safely transfer fresh water to remote areas, allowing new communities to thrive.

Water resource engineers also oversee projects designed to protect the environment. They develop complex soil drainage systems that prevent new development from negatively impacting existing communities downstream. They help conserve water by installing sophisticated rainwater collection systems for irrigation and grounds keeping purposes. They also work with other civil engineers to minimize the potential impact from natural disasters like floods and hurricanes.

Wastewater engineers help improve both our environment and our economy by helping communities and businesses dispose of waste without polluting natural water sources. In the not too distant past, factories and refineries dumped their industrial waste into rivers and streams. There, it would mingle with sewage and other household waste. The polluted bodies of water that resulted from these practices alarmed lawmakers and environmentalists.

Today, wastewater engineers develop sewage treatment plants that can remove waste products from water, returning pure water to streams and reservoirs. They design complex desalinization plants that can strip seawater of salt and other hazardous substances. They also implement innovative new systems to protect lakes, springs, and other sources of natural drinking water from contamination.

Environmental engineers work hard to turn back the clock to a time when we breathed cleaner air. They work closely with business leaders and government officials to institute new air pollution standards that reduce harmful emissions from factories without negatively impacting industrial output. They design complex filtration systems that remove particles from the air, either before leaving a factory exhaust system or before entering a home or business ventilation system.

Environmental engineers also examine the quality of our soil, assuring us that harmful toxins do not seep up through the ground we walk on. They work with agricultural businesses to assure consumers that pesticides and soil nutrients do not affect the quality of the food we eat. They also assure residents of new developments that homes have not been built on contaminated land.

Compliance officers work in both corporate and government settings to make sure that local and federal laws are observed in the construction, maintenance, and operation of all kinds of facilities. Compliance officers working in the private sector help their employers prepare for upcoming inspections by anticipating and eliminating sources of pollution or substandard construction. In-house compliance officers simulate visits from official inspectors, saving their companies significant amounts of money through their proactive approach.

Government compliance officers work for a variety of agencies that safeguard the public against lazy, incompetent, or greedy businesses. Compliance officers working for the Environmental Protection Administration example soil, air, and water samples to assure communities that factories and businesses do not cause excessive pollution. Compliance officers working for county code enforcement agencies make sure that structural engineers and contractors have erected buildings that meet all local guidelines for safety and stability. Though not always as lucrative a career path as other specialties for civil engineers, compliance officers usually enjoy a high degree of job security.

Construction managers combine their engineering and leadership skills to ensure that building projects are completed on time and under budget. Construction managers must coordinate the efforts of teams of engineers and laborers to meet tight production schedules. They are often the most visible hub of connection between architects, developers, and construction specialists.

Though not all construction managers have civil engineering degrees, this path of study can benefit a future construction manager in a variety of ways. By communicating on the same level and in the same language as specialist engineers, construction managers can develop positive work relationships with consultants and team members. They can also spot potential errors more easily on their own, without having to wait for consultants to arrive to the job site.

Government and urban planning engineers often use a combination of skills and specialties to coordinate public works and private construction in their communities. Traditionally, government planning engineers forged relationships with state agencies that would provide funding or construction of major projects. Local planning engineers would help residents understand the potential environmental impact of new highways or infrastructure projects.

More recently, local governments across the country have strengthened their internal planning systems and hired more engineers. By developing comprehensive land development plans as part of their long range strategies, cities and towns can position themselves to benefit from explosive growth without succumbing to overwhelming demands on water systems or roads. When residents manage engineering issues internally, they retain more control over the shape and the scope of development in their communities.

Salary Information for Careers in Civil Engineering

According to surveys conducted by the United States Department of Labor, many civil engineers earn moderately high salaries, ranging between $50,000 and $85,000. Entry level apprentice engineers and compliance officers often earn over $40,000 per year within the first year after completing their degree programs. As they quickly gain experience and add more projects to their portfolios, civil engineers working in the private sector can quickly earn higher salaries. Private sector positions often require civil engineers to move around the country to locations where development is booming.

While engineers working in the private sector do not always make as much money as their corporate counterparts, they make a similar trade-off. Civil engineers working for government bureaus often enjoy tremendous benefits packages. In many cases, state employees can receive full medical and dental coverage within the first few months of employment. They often enjoy tuition reimbursement benefits that allow them to continue their studies while still earning a full time income. Most importantly, they enjoy strong job stability, without the fear of having to move to participate in projects.

Professionals with master's degree and PhDs earn significantly higher salaries across the board when compared to their colleagues holding only Bachelor's degrees. Advanced degrees offer professionals the opportunity to specialize, assuring clients and employers that they bring the best credentials and experience to any project.

Certification and Licensure

The American Society of Civil Engineers now recommends a master's degree or it's equivalent for licensure and practice. More than one third of engineering graduates go on to pursue a master's degree. An engineer who provides engineering services to the public must be licensed. This certification as a professional engineer requires a degree fro an accredited engineering program, 4 years of relevant work experience, and the passage of a state examination in the fundamentals and principles and practice of engineering.

The National Society of Civil Engineers also administers exams twice each year in all 50 states to assist states with evaluating and selecting individuals who call themselves "professional engineers." While it is not always necessary to attain the Professional Engineering (PE) license to practice engineering, this license is required to practice certain government work or to review and approve designs, and some firms require the license for someone to progress to an engineering management position.