Civil engineers conceive and design infrastructure projects and systems in the public and private sectors, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, bridges and dams along with systems to improve the water supply or deal with and treat sewage. They also build, supervise and operate these complex systems.
A civil engineer may specialize as a construction engineer, geotechnical engineer, transportation engineer or structural engineer. They may focus specifically on designing projects, conducting research, or educating others in the field of civil engineering. In the public sector, they may take on an administrative or supervisory role as a city engineer, a public works director or city manager. In the private sector, they may supervise construction sites.
A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer
Civil engineers may spend as much time working in the office as they do in the field. In the office, they may conceptualize new project plans or consult with an architect or other engineering professionals. Out in the field, they may actively oversee construction and verifying that building plans are carried out properly and safely.
Specific job duties can vary drastically depending on the type of work or project, but some of the most common responsibilities of civil engineers include:
- Analyzing construction plans, survey reports, maps and other data
- Considering construction costs for proposed construction plans
- Considering government regulations and potential environmental hazards that could affect construction plans
- Filing for appropriate permits with local, state and federal agencies
- Checking soil and analyzing results to determine suitability of construction sites
- Managing the repair, maintenance and replacement of infrastructure
- Using design software to plan and design various infrastructure projects including transportation systems, buildings and bridges
- Preparing cost estimates for various construction projects
- Choosing building materials for specific projects
While civil engineers do a lot of work independently, they also collaborate with other engineering and construction professionals. And since much of their work is often publicly funded, they may also be required to submit bids or make presentations to the public at large.
Important Characteristics for Civil Engineers
Civil engineers must be very comfortable with mathematics and science. They use calculus, trigonometry, statistics and other advanced mathematics to perform their work analyzing, designing and troubleshooting engineering projects. They also depend on knowledge of physics and chemistry and other science-based subjects in their work.
They should have excellent decision-making skills, along with critical-thinking skills and the ability to consider projects from multiple perspectives. Obviously, civil engineers also need problem-solving skills so they can work through issues that arise. Lastly, civil engineers need good writing and speaking skills so they can communicate effectively and translate engineering and scientific concepts to their clients or members of the public.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Civil Engineer
Civil engineers make decisions that can affect thousands or even millions of people. Since civil engineers do such important work, they typically spend a lot of time pursuing higher education and honing their skills. Here are the usual steps needed for those who want to pursue a civil engineering career:
1) Earn a high school diploma. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that you need to earn a high school diploma before you can take the next steps toward becoming a civil engineer. It may be helpful to concentrate on mathematics and science subjects in high school to help prepare you for college courses.
If you know you are interested in this career early on, you can also consider attending an engineering summer camp during high school. These camps introduce young people to civil engineering courses and topics they may explore more later on.
2) Earn an undergraduate civil engineering degree. To become a civil engineer, you typically need a bachelor's degree. Schools may have slightly different ways to describe these degrees, but common ones include:
- Bachelor of Science in Structural Engineering
- Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
- Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering
- Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering Technology
Courses you can expect to take at civil engineering schools include math, statistics, engineering and fluid dynamics in addition to regular core curriculum. Outside of classroom learning, civil engineering programs may include some hands-on experience in laboratories or in the field.
If you plan to get a Professional Engineer (PE) license, you'll also want to make sure the civil engineering colleges you consider are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET.
3) Apply for a Professional Engineer (PE) license. Once you have earned an undergraduate degree from a school accredited by the ABET, you can apply for a Professional Engineer (PE) license. This license may not be required for entry-level positions but may become more important as you move up into management and leadership roles.
4) Qualify for additional certification. If you are interested in pursuing a particular area of civil engineering, you can earn a special certification through the American Society of Civil Engineers. This society makes it possible to specialize in important fields of civil engineering such as coastal engineering, water resources engineering, building security and sustainability.
- Accreditation, ABET.org, http://www.abet.org/accreditation/
- Civil Engineers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-24 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/civil-engineers.htm#tab-1
- Online Civil Engineering Degree, University of North Dakota, http://und.edu/academics/extended-learning/online-distance/degrees/civil-engineering/