Much has been written about the digital transformation of business and industry. Yet the fortunes of organizations across the U.S. and around the world depend just as much on technologies with roots that date back centuries: those that are used in the construction and maintenance of roads, buildings, sewers, transmission lines, and other physical infrastructure.
This is the province of civil engineers, whose efforts guide the construction and repair of public works that are critical to a smooth-running society. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has assigned a grade of C- to the current state of U.S. infrastructure:
- A water main breaks in this country every two minutes.
- The condition of 43% of public roadways is poor or mediocre.
- The location and condition of 25% of the 40,000 miles of levees in the U.S. are unknown.
The job outlook for civil engineers received a boost with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which provides $1.2 trillion in spending on roads and bridges, railroads, the power grid, and other physical infrastructure. Three jobs with civil engineering degree requirements are at the heart of efforts to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure:
- City engineers serve the engineering needs of municipalities.
- Structural engineers plan and implement the construction of buildings and other large projects.
- Construction engineers manage all aspects of construction projects, from planning through completion.
Qualifying for these and other civil engineering positions starts by earning a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) degree that combines the technical and management skills required to thrive in a civil engineering career.
What Does a Civil Engineer Do?
Civil engineers are the driving force behind the planning, construction, and maintenance of roads, tunnels, airports, dams, bridges, water purification and delivery systems, sewage treatment plants, and other physical structures. These professionals:
- Analyze survey reports, maps and other data when planning infrastructure projects.
- Estimate construction costs and analyze environmental hazards and other risk factors related to the projects.
- Prepare and submit bids on construction projects, including property descriptions and environmental impact reports.
- Complete permit applications for local, state and federal agencies and verify compliance with all applicable government regulations.
- Test soil and building materials to ensure they are adequate to support construction projects.
- Use engineering software to design transportation systems and other structures and confirm they meet industry and government standards.
- Manage surveying operations and other aspects of construction sites.
Civil engineers hold a bachelor’s or Master of Science in Engineering degree from a program that includes courses in math, statistics, engineering mechanics and systems, and fluid dynamics. The first step in becoming a licensed engineer for most graduates of engineering programs and students with at least three years of postsecondary engineering courses is passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. This earns them the designation of engineer in training so they can gain practical work experience.
To earn a professional engineering (PE) license requires a degree from a program accredited by the ABET and passing the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) test. Candidates must also have at least four years of work experience under a licensed engineer. A PE license is not a requirement for entry-level civil engineering jobs, however.
Among the skills required for a civil engineering career are math, problem-solving, decision-making, leadership, speaking and writing.
City engineers design and manage a range of infrastructure projects for municipalities, typically as city employees. The projects city engineers oversee include bridges, roads, mass transit lines and stations, and sewer lines. They are responsible for keeping projects within their budgets and ensuring that they meet all environmental and safety laws. These are among the duties of city engineers:
- Analyze data relevant to the project.
- Test soil and building material to ensure they meet project requirements.
- Manage the workers engaged in various aspects of the operation.
- Prepare and present progress reports for city officials and the public.
- Survey the project site and track progress in reaching milestones.
City engineers usually have earned a bachelor’s or higher degree in civil engineering, environmental engineering or a similar area. They must have experience working on civil engineering projects and leading project teams. City engineers may need to work long hours on occasion and travel to project sites and other locations.
The median annual salary for city engineers was about $91,500 as of November 2021, according to PayScale data. However, salaries for city engineers vary by region, from an average of about $113,000 annually in California to $48,000 per year in Wyoming.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the number of jobs for civil engineers, which includes city, structural and construction engineers, will increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as the average projected for all jobs in the period. About 10% of all civil engineers are employed by local governments, excluding education and hospitals.
The second of the three jobs with civil engineering degree requirements is in structural engineering. Structural engineers are charged with planning and developing the infrastructure for buildings and other large construction projects. They work with architects, construction companies, contractors, public officials, utility companies and other entities to ensure the projects meet all technical, environmental, legal, and health and safety requirements. These are among the duties of structural engineers:
- Work with architects to plan the design of buildings, tunnels, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
- Calculate loads under specific environmental conditions, including seasonal weather extremes.
- Understand the physical properties of steel, concrete, masonry, wood and other material used in construction.
- Recommend the best material to use, appropriate structures and support requirements.
Structural engineers are responsible for inspecting structures to confirm they comply with all safety and environmental requirements. They create specifications, drawings and other construction documents.
A PE license is required to qualify for structural engineer positions. The median salary for structural engineers was about $71,000 as of December 2021, according to PayScale.
Construction engineers are civil engineers who focus on the construction process and construction sites. The typical duties of a construction engineer include ensuring all the materials a construction project will require are available, communicating engineering concepts to construction workers, managing the construction site, and coordinating with clients and contract vendors. The types of projects construction engineers work on include the following:
- Roads, bridges and tunnels
- Housing and business developments
- Dams and other energy sources
- Wastewater treatment plants
- Sewage and drainage systems
- Sports stadiums, hospitals and other public buildings
Among the skills required to qualify for construction engineer jobs are proficiency with 3D modeling and simulation software, budgeting, risk management and cost estimation for materials, labor, equipment, testing and inspection. Construction engineers are responsible for ensuring the project complies with all government regulations and environmental laws.
Other skills required to work as a construction engineer include good communication, leadership and applied science abilities. Construction engineers typically hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in engineering or a related science field. Many employers prefer to hire construction engineers who have a PE license, although it may not be required.
Construction engineers had a median annual salary of about $70,000 as of December 2021, according to PayScale.
Laying the Foundation for a Career in Civil Engineering
Increased awareness of the need to update and repair our country’s aging infrastructure is only one of the reasons why the job outlook for civil engineers is bright. The availability of new construction materials and techniques now makes it more cost-effective and rewarding than ever to upgrade transportation systems, power grids and every type of public or private construction project.
Programs such as the online Master of Science in Engineering program at the University of California, Riverside prepare graduates to take on leadership positions in many different engineering endeavors. Find out how the program helps graduates qualify for a range of rewarding careers in civil engineering.