Design and maintain infrastructure as a civil engineer

Civil Engineer and Foreman

Career spotlight: Civil engineer

Without civil engineering, man would still be living in caves and swimming across rivers. A civil engineer is someone who designs and maintains buildings, roads, bridges, and other structures. Ever since humanity started building huts and roads, there has been a need for people to make sure the construction is safe and stable. This means the civil engineering profession will continue as long as there's a need for housing and maintenance. To fully answer, "what does a civil engineer do," you have to look at the background, the skills, and the day-to-day life of the people who work in the field. Keep reading to learn more about this exciting career, and how you can enter the engineering market.

Learn about average salary and best locations for a civil engineer.

What can you expect from a civil engineering job?

Responsibilities

Civil engineers can be found in almost any industry, working to optimize the construction of structures while maintaining safety regulations. They're also found in the aerospace and automotive industries, evaluating the weight load and balance of the latest models. However, there is a common thread of what civil engineers do daily, so check out a few examples below.

  • Analyze landscape, potential risks, opportunities, and barriers
  • Draft blueprints and possible alternatives to reduce risk
  • Evaluate timeline, budget, resources, and labor needed
  • Test the soil, materials, and land for stable foundations
  • Develop blueprints and prototype models for the project or building
  • Manage repairs and maintenance for damage and aging structures
  • Utilize software to model possibilities and dimensions
  • Calculate resource needs, size, and length for maximum structural security
  • Brainstorm regional challenges that could damage the structure and how to avoid them
  • Propose plans to client and management, then adjust them based on their feedback
  • Manage teams that build the structure to make sure all skill sets are available

Work environment

The typical work environment of a civil engineer is a normal office space with a desk, computer, monitor, and phone. While some offices might still have drawing boards for drafting blueprints, the digital era has made it possible for much of the work to be done online. They may also receive a laptop and tablet for remote work. Civil engineers will either work on projects by themselves or collaborate on larger opportunities with a team. They may be required to travel around the office during the day for meetings.

Depending on the company and industry, civil engineers may spend a good deal of time at the construction site after their plans have been approved. They may have to spend several hours outside in uncomfortable weather conditions like extreme heat, cold, and rain.

If the civil engineer is working on a project far from home, they may be required to relocate for several months at a time until the project is complete. This means they will live in temporary housing, or have to move their families throughout the process. In some cases, civil engineers can commute to the work site, and travel home at the end of the day or on weekends depending on the distance. This can lead to a stressful work environment if you're not used to the area where you're working, but can also be an opportunity to see new regions while working on an exciting project.

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Schedule

Like the civil engineering work environment, the schedule varies by company and industry. Most civil engineers work typical business hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. They should typically follow this schedule whether they're working in an office or at a work site, however, there may be multiple shifts that require them to work longer.

Occasionally, the civil engineer may need to work late to hit a deadline for blueprints, prototypes, or finished products. This could range from staying late one or two nights a week to working late for several weeks until completion. While the typical schedule of a civil engineer isn't stressful, there are definitely times when deadlines require a cool head under pressure and the ability to manage a project to completion.

What Qualifications Are Required to Be a Civil Engineer?

Education

Most civil engineers need at least a Bachelor's degree in engineering or a related field. While it's possible to train people with the right skillset to complete civil engineering duties, many managers hire directly from the graduating class of civil engineers at nearby universities. Here are a few common majors that they look for:

  • Civil Engineering
    • Architecture
    • Architectural Engineering
    • Mathematics
    • Mechanical Engineering
  • Civil engineers who are committed to the field should consider acquiring a professional engineer (PE) license. Oftentimes, a Bachelor's degree will suffice to get one. About 25 percent of civil engineers have a Master's Degree, which means it isn't a requirement to find employment right out of college.

    Experience

    While civil engineering requires a strong educational background, it's not hard to get into with the right degree and training. Almost 50 percent of civil engineers have fewer than five years of experience in the field, and 75 percent have fewer than 10 years of experience. This speaks to the demand for civil engineers in our society and highlights the position as a stepping stone to other careers.

    General civil engineers often specialize in a specific type of civil engineering after a few years. The first five to 10 years allows them to build their experience and understanding of the industry and decide what they like. This typically leads to a change in job title, making the field appear younger than it is.

    Skills

    The answer to "what do civil engineers do" can be found in the skillset. By looking at the industry needs, you can see what type of candidate is ideal for this position. Here are some of the skills employers look when hiring civil engineers.

    • Mathematics - Civil engineers need a strong understanding of math to develop drafts and create blueprints.
    • Physics - Without an understanding of physics, the structural integrity of a building is at risk.
    • Project Management - Members of this profession need to lead a project from the ideation stage through drafting to construction and completion. Without this, there will be delays and budget overages.
    • Finance - Knowledge of cost analysis for materials and labor is crucial for staying on budget.
    • Office programs - Many companies require their civil engineers to use Microsoft Word and Powerpoint to create and pitch proposals.
    • Communication - Civil engineers should be able to discuss their plans and give instructions in a clear and concise manner.
    • Leadership - Without proper leadership, projects fall by the wayside and teams aren't sure what is expected of them.
    • Attention to Detail - Civil Engineers need to focus on every minute detail or the entire construction of the building could be off, leading to structural weaknesses.
    • Calmness Under Pressure - When approaching a tight deadline, the civil engineer needs to stay calm and continue to focus until the project is done.
    • Organizational Skills - Civil engineers need to map out a plan that their peers and co-workers can follow, and they also need to have organizational skills to make sure nothing is skilled, overlooked, or lost.

    Salary expectations

    Entry-level civil engineers typically make $47,000 annually but they can quickly earn $62,000 — the national median salary, after spending a few years in the field, is around $70,000 annually. On the high end, civil engineers can earn $75,000 and up to $93,000 in the top 10 percent. To answer "how much does a civil engineer make," you have to evaluate experience, the industry, the projects, the company, and even the location of the firm.

    Job outlook for civil engineers

    Projected growth

    According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth for civil engineers from 2014 to 2024 is eight percent, which is considered average growth compared to other US industries. There's expected to be an additional 23,600 jobs in the market, increasing the current industry total from 281,400. This is good news for candidates considering entering the civil engineering field, as there will be plenty of job opportunities across the country once they finish their education.

    Career trajectory

    There are multiple specializations that civil engineers can choose from once they have a few years of experience in the field. These include land development, transportation, and road/highway management. This allows them to focus on something they're passionate about and make improvements to a more niche market.

    Other civil engineers become structural engineers or senior civil engineers. They might manage a team of civil engineers or lead a major project from blueprint through completion. Some companies might want their senior civil engineers to have a Master's degree or for their candidates to have relevant leadership and communication skills. If this is the case, ask about tuition reimbursement opportunities to grow your knowledgebase within the company.

    As a civil engineer, you have a chance to really make a mark on the landscape around you. You can improve the roads and highway layout, create buildings that drive commerce to the region, and strengthen the current infrastructure. The public is counting on you to keep the roads maintained and the buildings stable. It's all part of the civil engineer job description.