What is Civil Engineering?

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Civil Engineering

Click on each topic below to learn more about the field of Civil Engineering.

Civil engineers design, build, operate, and maintain the structures and infrastructure that allows our modern society to function. These facilities are critically important to our everyday life and include buildings, roads, bridges, safe drinking water systems, storm water and wastewater collection and treatment systems, railroads, seaports, airports, environmental protection systems, dams, flood control works, and many others.  Civil engineering is the largest of all engineering fields and is projected to have the largest job growth (over 46,000 new hires) in next 10 years.

Civil engineers are problem solvers, meeting the challenges of pollution control, traffic congestion, drinking water needs, energy demands, urban redevelopment, costal protection and resiliency, and community planning.  From the Freedom Tower in NYC rising 1776 feet in the air to the massive Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, civil engineers are building our future.

Civil engineering is a very broad profession that encompasses a wide range of activities, some obvious and some not so obvious. The profession is organized into several different subdisciplines:

Structural Engineering:

Structural engineers design a lot more than buildings and bridges. They can be found in the aerospace industry, designing jetliners and space stations; in the automotive industry, perfecting the load-carrying capacity of a chassis and improving the crashworthiness of bumpers and doors; in the energy industry, designing offshore oil production facilities that can withstand hurricane winds and waves; and they can be found in the ship building industry, the power industry, and many other industries wherever constructed facilities are involved.

Transportation Engineering:

Transportation engineers provide efficient and safe ways for us to move from one place to another. They design highways, railroads, seaports, airports, and other similar projects. Transportation infrastructure is essential to society and improving this infrastructure is a high priority in the coming decades, which will require civil engineers with expertise in transportation engineering.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering focuses on providing safe drinking water systems, solid waste handling/recycling/disposal, environmental protection, storm water management, wastewater collection and treatment, ground water protection and remediation, air pollution treatment and management, and hazardous waste cleanup and management. Environmental engineers work closely with municipal governments, industry, and federal agencies to meet local, state, and national environmental regulations. With goals to protect public health and the environment, it is said that civil/environmental engineers have saved more lives than doctors.

Construction Engineering

Construction engineers oversee the actual construction of civil engineering projects. They start with design drawings and specifications prepared by design engineers, and convert them into physical reality. Cost estimating, scheduling, contracting, and working with project owners, engineers, vendors, and skilled craftsmen to complete sometimes massive construction jobs on-time and under-budget requires excellent leadership and communication skills.

Coastal Engineering

Another unique civil engineering subdiscipline is coastal engineering. Coastal engineers expertly understand water, wind, and waves so that they can design coastal protection structures, ports, harbors, beaches, living shorelines, and help protect coastal bridges, buildings, and barrier islands from severe tropical weather systems (i.e. hurricanes). Did you know that many urbanized beaches are actually “engineered” beaches? (so that they will protect the coastal structures)

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineers focus on soil, rock, and underground water and how they relate to the design, construction, and long-term operation of civil engineering projects. Their work is critical to providing adequate foundations for buildings (or other large structures…think dams, overpasses, tunnels or subways, large storage tanks, etc.), preventing landslides, and remediating underground issues, including contamination.

Water Resources Engineering

Water resources engineering involves many types of projects needed to provide safe drinking water, irrigation water, flood control, and waterborne navigation. These projects may include aqueducts, pipelines, dams, levees, pump stations, locks and dams, channel dredging, and other similar projects. For example, the cities of New York and Los Angeles get their water (hundreds of millions of gallons per day) from mountain snowmelt located hundreds of miles away from the city centers. Water availability is becoming a serious problem in many parts of the U.S. and the world, as population continues to grow.

So as you can see, civil engineers are involved in a wide variety of projects that all impact our built environment and our daily lives. More and more, civil engineers rely on modern tools such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), and electronic sensing devices to solve problems related to water resources, transportation, environment, or structures.

Civil engineers work in a variety of different settings and for a wide range of employers. Some are self employed and own there own engineering companies. Some civil engineering jobs are primarily indoors, but many involve frequent visits to project sites during both the design and construction phases.

Public sector employers include public agencies, such as city/county engineering (or public works) departments, water/wastewater utilities, state departments of transportation, and many federal agencies (US Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, US Geological Survey, NASA, NOAA, etc.).

Private sector employers include small, medium, and large consulting companies that provide engineering design/construction services. Often, these companies specialize in some particular area of civil engineering (structures, environmental, geotechnical, etc.). As examples, some firms specialize in the design/construction of large athletic stadiums, some firms specialize in the design/construction of bridges or highways, some wastewater treatment facilities, and some do a little bit of everything.

There is a very strong demand for civil engineers, as you might imagine. A recent Kelly Services report on US Engineering Employment Growth found that overall engineering job growth is expected to increase by 11% over the next 10 years, and civil engineering is projected as the engineering field with the most job growth (over 46,000 new hires). New civil engineering graduates in the US earn an average $57,600 per year. Private company hires often earn more than public agency hires, but public agency hires often have more secure positions and substantial benefits.

Click here to read the Kelly Services article.


Check out this video!  USA Civil Engineering featured on Alabama Public TV's "On the Job" program.