This Is What Civil Engineers Do

Civil engineers sitting around a table


Taylor Tobin
Taylor Tobin1.84k

When a young child imagines “engineering”, he or she probably thinks of hard-hatted professionals designing and constructing bridges, large buildings, rail tracks, and major transit hubs. And if you choose to pursue a career in civil engineering, you’ll be doing exactly those things. Civil engineers take charge of the large construction projects that we associate with thriving towns and cities, and their hands-on experiences with urban infrastructure can set them up nicely for career advancement.

Here’s everything you need to know about civil engineering: what it entails, where you can find a career in the field, the types of projects involved, the qualifications required, and the potential for growth.

What is a civil engineer?

“Civil engineers” focus on infrastructure projects that shape towns and cities into growing and thriving communities. These construction efforts may include building new railroad tracks, renovating airports, repairing or constructing bridges, and even refining water systems to ensure proper operation. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “civil engineers design, build, and maintain the foundation for our modern society – our roads and bridges, drinking water and energy systems, seaports and airports, and the infrastructure for a cleaner environment, to name just a few.” These projects can necessitate specialized knowledge, giving civil engineers with training in geotechnology and water systems a chance to shine. 

Where do civil engineers work?

While civil engineers can be employed by outside companies and firms, “civil” projects frequently happen on a city level, funded at least in part by public tax revenue. Therefore, civil engineers have an enormous responsibility to both the companies that employ them and to the cities themselves. Most civil engineers split their time between on-the-scene work at construction sites and administrative tasks in an office. It’s a full-time position requiring flexibility and a willingness to jump in when needed. 

What types of projects are typical for this career?

Civil engineers typically oversee large-scale municipal projects, but can focus on different facets of the assignment. Some are construction engineers, who manage the builders themselves and ensure that the project adheres to local codes. Others are geotechnical engineers, investigating how the planned structures will interact with the earth and soil and adjusting formulas to suit the landscape. Others are structural engineers, using their skills to evaluate the strength and durability of buildings, bridges, dams, and other projects. And still others are transportation engineers, making sure that flights, train schedules, and traffic signals run on time and keep all systems moving. The structures built by civil engineers range from buildings to bridges, roads, airports, highways, rail lines, dams, and sewage and water systems. 

What salary can civil engineers expect?

According to US News and World Report, civil engineers in 2018 can expect a median annual income of $83,540. Salaries for civil engineers vary significantly depending on location; Sokanu reports that civil engineers in Montana make average salaries of $71,960, while the same engineers in Alaska make $120,580 per year. 

What qualifications does a civil engineer need?

Typically, civil engineers need a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, involving classes in relevant subjects like math, statistics, and engineering mechanics. If you major in civil engineering at many universities, you’ll graduate with an ABET (Accreditation Board of Engineering) accreditation. It’s important to ensure that your academic program is accredited, because you can’t become licensed otherwise, and licensing is required to actively work in the civil engineering field. Also, different states have different licensing requirements, so you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the specific rules for your state (check out the American Society of Civil Engineers). If you’re interested in a managerial role in the field, continuing your education with a master’s degree in civil engineering is highly recommended. 

What growth opportunities does a civil engineer have?

Within the field of civil engineering, rising to a manager level (which allows you to oversee teams of civil engineers and lead upcoming projects) represents the highest-possible level of growth. If you’re a specialized engineer within the field, focusing on geotechnical engineering or transportation engineering, you can ascend to higher echelons of specialization. Or, if you prefer to remain in public service, translating the insider knowledge gained through civil engineering into a career as an urban planner can be highly fulfilling. 
Urban planners focus on conceptual “big picture” infrastructural ideas, placing them one step above civil engineers on the totem pole. However, the median annual salary for urban planners is ultimately lower than that of most civil engineers; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the figure sits at $71,490.

Who are some examples of famous civil engineers, and what did they build?

We’ll start with a civil engineer you’ll absolutely recognize: Gustave Eiffel, the creator and builder of the iconic Parisian tower that bears his name. The Eiffel Tower rose on the Champs de Mars in 1889 and quickly became recognized worldwide as a visual representation of the city of Paris. Adding to Eiffel’s already-impressive resume, he also had a hand in designing and construction the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

Another big-deal civil engineer from the 19th century is John A. Roebling, who specialized in suspension bridges. His work allowed the completion of the New York Central and Great Western Railways in the eastern United States and Canada, and if you’d like to spot one of his most celebrated triumphs in the present day, look no further than the Brooklyn Bridge, a classic Roebling creation. 

But even in the 1800s and early 1900s, civil engineering wasn’t just a boy’s club. Nora Stanton Blatchley became the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in the early 20th century, after making her mark as the first female graduate of Cornell University’s civil engineering program. Her professional engineering projects included major endeavors for the American Bridge Company and the New York City Board of Water Supply, and in her free time, she actively participated in the fight for women’s rights, rising to the presidency of the Women’s Political Union in 1915. 

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