Job Title: Principal Engineer
Type of Company: A regional planning commission which provides engineering and planning services for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin metropolitan area.
Education: BS, Civil Engineering, Valparaiso University MS, Civil Engineering, University of Minnesota
Previous Experience: I started as a project engineer with HDR Engineering in Minneapolis, then moved to Milwaukee and joined an engineering firm as a water resources project manager.
Job Tasks: My job responsibilities include providing hydraulic modeling advice for the counties and communities in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. I am currently working on a model update for Honey Creek which is 9 miles long and located in Milwaukee County. This entails making sure the hydraulic model accurately represents the creek, both for channel cross-sections and for the bridges located along its length. The completed model will be used to map the 100-year floodplain and let local businesses and home owners know if their buildings are too close to the creek. If so, flood insurance will be required to protect their assets.
I also review proposed development plans submitted by the counties or communities for floodplain issues, such as fill in the floodplain. If a new building project will require new soil to be dumped in an existing floodplain, the developer must replace the water storage capacity that will be lost with a comparable volume nearby. Otherwise water levels will rise and affect both the new property and adjacent ones.
I also advise local communities about the new FEMA digital flood insurance rate maps (DFIRM) that are currently being updated. At my last job I worked for FEMA developing this product for counties in Wisconsin. The new DFIRM are GIS based, with the flood plains based on digital contour mapping and drawn over aerial photos. This format is new for our communities, and I spend some time explaining how the product was developed and should be used.
Best and Worst Parts of the Job: As I am 14 years into my career, I am now able to manage my own time without too much oversight. I enjoy being able to make my own decisions about when I need to go out in the field and visit a stream, etc. I also enjoy the relaxed atmosphere here and the ability to stick with a task until I am satisfied with the results. The consistent hours are a good thing as well. And I can attend local training and keep up with the technical journals as I see fit.
Coming from the private consulting industry to the government sector has been a big shift in expectations for me. The pace is almost too slow (not enough work) and everyone is given the same raise no matter how good or bad their performance is. These are two of the worst parts of the job.
Job Tips: For a civil engineer, a Masters degree is almost a must and I would recommend going straight on from undergrad to graduate school. Most "civils" only get a bachelor's degree and after they've gotten a job and started to make money, they never go back for their Masters. A Masters degree will not increase your initial salary, but it will allow you to specialize and open doors to advancement later on. The top consulting firms today rarely hire someone with only a bachelor's degree.
If possible, find a co-op or internship or summer job working in a civil engineering firm. Work on a survey crew will really help as well, both to show you what the job is like and to get your resume going.
Additional Thoughts: The coursework required to become a civil engineer is pretty challenging and very math-based. So if you do not like applied math, then engineering is not for you. I enjoy civil engineering, since much of what I do helps to better our planet, and I get to see projects actually built. It is very satisfying to work for years, sometimes, designing a project and then be able to see it get built and function as desired.
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