What is Environmental Engineering: Job Description, Skills and Salary

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A team of environmental engineers works on a project.

Environmental engineering is a vital field with a bright future. As awareness builds around an ongoing ecological crisis that threatens much of the life on earth, environmental engineers will play pivotal roles in designing, developing and testing systems that keep the air and water clean. Mitigating the effects of climate change will require major contributions from everyone in the environmental engineering sector.

This article examines how you can become an environmental engineer and what common responsibilities you can expect. You can earn an online engineering degree such as a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) with a concentration in environmental engineering from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) to gain the advanced expertise and experience necessary for pursuing senior and executive roles in the field. The UCR MSE is fully online, with a rigorous curriculum in a flexible format that can fit into your busy schedule.

Environmental engineer job description: Key roles and responsibilities

As an environment engineer, work will focus on solving problems related to the natural environment. Toward that end, you might:

  • Devise efficient methods and systems for controlling air and water pollution
  • Write and revise environmental investigation reports and journal articles
  • Navigate permitting processes and other administrative procedures
  • Study natural ecosystems to understand and address the causes of issues such as algae blooms
  • Perform data analysis and quality assessments for ongoing projects
  • Conduct inspections of designated sites to ensure compliance with applicable environmental rules and regulations
  • Determine the sources of contamination in bodies of water
  • Examine the presence of possible contaminants in household and building materials
  • Contribute to wastewater treatment methodologies
  • Draw up solutions that can reduce the causes and effects of major trends including ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and acid rain

Which of these tasks you will perform will depend upon your specialization in the field. For instance, the environmental engineering concentration in the UCR MSE program focuses on issues related to water. All students opting for this concentration will take four required courses: Water Chemistry in Natural and Engineered Systems, Physical and Chemical Separation Processes, Biological Treatment Processes and Advanced Treatment Systems. Between them, these classes cover topics such as membrane filtration, oxidation and osmosis, which are three processes for treating wastewater and drinking water; the particle removal mechanisms of filtration systems; characteristics of water quality; and chemical equilibrium.

In addition to the environmental engineering courses, students will complete a quartet of core courses examining general technical and managerial topics in engineering, such as how to work in a globally distributed team of engineers. The four MSE course classes are Engineering in the Global Environment, Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, Introduction to Systems Engineering and Principles of Engineering Management. All students will also complete four capstone projects that provide rich and immersive experience in the field.

How to become an environmental engineer

A bachelor’s degree in the field or a related discipline of engineering (e.g., chemical engineering) is the baseline requirement for most positions in environmental engineering. It’s also important for jobseekers to have practical experience, which they can gain through an undergraduate or graduate program such as the UCR MSE.

In addition to such in-depth experience and advanced exploration of the major topics in the field, a master’s degree in environmental engineering can also increase earning potential. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has calculated the average gains that professionals in certain fields, including engineering, can expect after earning a graduate degree. While they do not specifically contain a listing for environmental engineering, the BLS numbers indicate that some types of engineers have a wage premium of up to 13 percent for a master’s over their counterparts with only a bachelor’s degree.

Career and salary outlook for environmental engineers

There were almost 54,000 jobs for environmental engineers in 2016, per BLS data. Between 2016 and 2026, an additional 4,500 position are expected to be created, for a growth rate of 8 percent. That is a similar rate to the projected expansion for all occupations and for engineering professions in general.

One of the main drivers of demand for environmental engineering in the coming years will be from state and local governments seeking improvements to the water quality in their jurisdictions. Graduates of the UCR MSE track, with its special focus on water-related topics, will be well prepared for this development.

The median annual pay for environmental engineers was $86,800 in May 2017, per the BLS. That compares to $92,220 for all engineers and $37,690 for all occupations in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook.

UCR MSE outcomes for environmental engineering students

Students who complete the UCR MSE program are prepared to pursue a wide range of positions in environmental engineering. Some of the common possibilities for employment include hydrologist, air quality consultant and wastewater treatment engineer. Some of these positions have better prospects than environmental engineering overall. For example, the BLS predicts 10 percent growth in hydrologist positions from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all professions.

Engineers can expect a rewarding experience from the UCR MSE. The program’s combined focused on engineering and management prepares graduates to become leaders in the field.

“The knowledge I learned from my classes is very applicable to the work that I do every day,” said Peter Do, a 2017 graduate. “I liked the course content and professors very much. They inspired me to do even more of my own research.”

To learn more about the UCR MSE environmental engineering specialization, visit its main page. You can also visit the main program page to download a copy of the brochure after answering a few questions.

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