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Civil Engineer Career Guide

What is a civil engineer?

Civil engineers play a vital role in society’s development, focusing on designing, building, and maintaining structures integral to modern life. They operate at the crossroads of creativity and precision, leveraging the principles of mathematics and physics to draw up intricate plans for everything from bridges and roads to water supply systems and skyscrapers. Their expertise in surveying landscapes, developing blueprints for structures, and understanding the properties of building materials makes them indispensable for urban and rural development.

Civil engineering doesn’t only aim at facilitating smooth transport and comfortable living conditions but also takes safety and sustainability into account. Hence, these professionals play a significant role in safeguarding public welfare. By designing buildings that can withstand natural disasters to creating infrastructural systems that protect the environment, they hold an essential position in building a resilient and sustainable future.

Duties and responsibilities

One of the primary responsibilities of a civil engineer is to plan and design large construction projects like highways, bridges, airports, and water treatment systems. They conduct feasibility studies on proposed projects, developing blueprints and schematics that conform to zoning laws, safety regulations, and environmental guidelines. They use specialized design software to create complex plan layouts that account for potential challenges like geological quirks and climate impacts.

Aside from design work, these engineers oversee project execution, ensuring every stage from construction to maintenance aligns with the original plan. They organize and direct onsite staffing, order and manage materials, perform quality control checks, and monitor progress by preparing public reports. Additionally, they collaborate extensively with different stakeholders, including construction managers, architects, and local government officials, to ensure a smooth and compliant project completion.

Work environment

The work environment for a civil engineer can vary significantly and often involves a balance of office work and fieldwork. Detailed project planning and design work typically occur in an office setting, where they leverage computer-aided design (CAD) software to develop blueprints. In the office, they also engage with clients and other team members, participate in project meetings, and handle administrative tasks like budgeting and logistics planning.

However, these professionals don’t spend all their time behind a desk. They regularly visit project sites to inspect the progress of ongoing constructions, monitor compliance with their designs, and solve on-the-spot technical issues. These locations can range from bustling city commercial complexes to remote rural infrastructure.

Typical work hours

Civil engineers generally work standard full-time hours, from Monday to Friday, typically starting their day early to sync with construction schedules. Given the nature of construction projects, they may also need to be available outside standard office hours. When project deadlines loom or unexpected issues arise during construction, overtime and weekend work may be required.

Field visits, inspections, and on-site problem-solving also demand flexibility in work schedules. Project locations could require travel, sometimes even for extended periods. Therefore, their schedule can often be dynamic, influenced by project timelines, location, and stages of execution.

How to become a civil engineer

Becoming a civil engineer requires a combination of education, skill, and practical experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma

The first step to a career in civil engineering is obtaining a high school diploma. It is essential to focus on math and science, specifically physics and materials science, as they are vital to understanding the principles of engineering.

Step 2: Enroll in a civil engineering degree program

After graduation from high school, aspiring engineers should enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in civil engineering or a related field. Some institutions offer specialized programs such as structural engineering or transportation engineering.

Step 3: Participate in an internship

Internships provide valuable work experience and are often a part of the civil engineering degree program. An internship allows you to apply what you have learned in the classroom to real-world scenarios, working under the supervision of experienced professionals.

Step 4: Obtain a Professional Engineering (PE) license

After receiving a degree and gaining some experience, to advance in your career and undertake the responsibility of approving engineering plans, you’ll need to obtain a PE license. Licensing requirements vary by state, but typically involve passing two rigorous exams and gaining sufficient work experience.

Step 5: Gain work experience

Work experience in the field of civil engineering is necessary to advance one’s career. Undertaking projects under the guidance of a licensed engineer provides valuable hands-on experience that can boost your job prospects. This real-world experience tests your application of the theoretical knowledge you’ve gathered over the years.

Step 6: Pursue further education or certification

This field is constantly evolving, meaning continual learning is crucial. This could through obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering or acquiring specialized certifications in areas such as environmental engineering, structural engineering, or traffic engineering. Maintaining your PE license also typically requires ongoing education.

Step 7: Apply for positions

Finally, after years of study, internship experiences, and licensure, it’s time to apply for civil engineering jobs. Many entry-level positions require a portfolio detailing past projects, so be prepared to present yours. Continuously update your resume to reflect new skills and experiences. Networking and making connections in the field can also help to discover job opportunities.

How much do civil engineers make?

Salaries for civil engineers can vary considerably. Generally, areas with a high cost of living pay higher wages, as do areas with high construction activity.

Education and certification can materially impact earnings. Advanced degrees and a PE license can substantially boost income potential.

Experience is another crucial consideration. As these engineers progress in their careers, their salaries tend to increase along with their experience and skills.

The industry they work in and the company’s size also plays a significant role. Larger companies or industries with a high capital expenditure typically pay more. Commissions and bonuses also contribute to the overall compensation package, usually tied to project completion or company performance.

Highest paying industries

  • Oil and Gas – $122,840
  • Federal Government – $120,830
  • Commercial Construction – $118,320
  • Scientific Research – $117,260
  • Instruments Manufacturing – $115,820

Highest paying states

  • Alaska – $119,120
  • California – $107,370
  • New Jersey – $106,060
  • Texas – $105,850
  • Washington – $103,980

Browse civil engineer salary data by market

Types of civil engineers

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for civil engineers. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

Structural engineer

A structural engineer designs and oversees structurally sound and resilient buildings and infrastructures. Their expertise lies in understanding the strength and durability of different construction materials and how best to utilize them to ensure the safety and longevity of structures.

Transportation engineer

Rooted in the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems is the specialty of transportation engineering. They ensure the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, focusing mainly on roadways, railways, air travel, and shipping routes.

Environmental engineer

With a sharp focus on protecting and improving the environment, environmental engineers lend their expertise to address challenges such as waste disposal, pollution control, and public health issues. They design and develop solutions that are both environmentally friendly and compliant with regulatory standards.

Geotechnical engineer

Geotechnical engineering is an offshoot of civil engineering that deals with the behavior of earth materials and the application of principles of soil and rock mechanics. They analyze and design structures that interact with the ground, like tunnels, dams, and foundations, and help assess landslide and earthquake risk.

Water resource engineer

A specialty steeped in the management of water resources, these engineers design and implement systems for water distribution, collection, and treatment. Whether it’s developing sustainable methods for water use or mitigating flood damage, these professionals play a vital role in the stewardship of this indispensable resource.

Construction engineer

Working at the intersection of design and construction, a construction engineer brings an engineering mindset to the execution of construction projects. They’re involved in project planning, scheduling, cost management, and ensuring construction work complies with design specifications and safety standards.

Top skills for civil engineers

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a civil engineer. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Excellence in mathematics and science

Given the technical nature of civil engineering, a strong foundation in mathematics and science is paramount. Professionals in this role often utilize principles of physics, geometry, and other mathematical theories in designing and executing various infrastructure projects. Mastery of these subjects allows them to design solutions that are feasible, efficient, and safe.

Detail-oriented attitude

Precision is a non-negotiable attribute. Strong attention to detail ensures accurate calculations, designs, and plans. Even the tiniest error or oversight might result in grave consequences, including disastrous structural failures or budget overruns. Therefore, an ability to focus on every detail and ensure nothing is disregarded is crucial.

Project management skills

Work in this profession often involves extensive projects with numerous moving parts. Strong project management skills help manage resources, schedules, and people, ensuring that projects are executed on time and within budget. A successful engineer can juggle multiple tasks, plan and monitor project progress, and react promptly to sudden changes or delays.

Effective communication abilities

As constructors of societal infrastructure, these professionals frequently interact with various stakeholders, including contractors, government officials, architects, and the general public. They need to be able to communicate complex technical information in an easy-to-understand manner. Consequently, strong written and verbal communication skills are vital for conveying points effectively, mitigating conflicts, and fostering relationships.

Problem-solving skills

The nature of civil engineering is such that unexpected obstacles can arise at any stage of a project. Therefore, the ability to think on one’s feet and devise workable solutions under pressure plays a critical role in this field. Excellence in problem-solving entails a strong understanding of the problem and the creative application of engineering principles to overcome challenges.

Civil engineer career path

The career path for civil engineers presents many opportunities for advancement and specialization. After gaining practical experience in general civil engineering, one common route is to take on a project engineering role. This position involves more responsibility, including overseeing projects, coordinating teams, and interfacing with clients.

Beyond the role of a project engineer, many aim to become project managers or even senior project managers. In these roles, they will typically be responsible for the successful planning, execution, monitoring, control, and closure of a project. This move often requires additional training or certification in project management, but it also offers the opportunity for higher earnings and greater challenges.

In addition to moving up the ranks within a firm, there’s an option to specialize in a particular area of civil engineering, such as structural engineering, environmental engineering, or transportation engineering. These specialists usually have interest or expertise in their chosen field and may need additional education or certification to move into these roles.

There’s also the academic route, where one can pursue a role in research or teaching in universities. This often requires further study leading to a master’s degree or a Ph.D. It’s a path that allows for constant learning, sharing knowledge, and making significant contributions to the field of civil engineering.

Finally, with enough experience and capital, some choose to establish their own engineering consultancies. This entrepreneurial step allows them to take on projects as independent contractors, provide expert advice, and lead their own teams. However, this path requires a substantial amount of business knowledge in addition to the engineering skills.

In the world of civil engineering, many trends are shaping the future of the industry. Technological advancements, sustainability, and the growing focus on infrastructure are some key areas of change and progress.

First, technology is playing a crucial role in how civil engineers carry out their tasks. The integration of Building Information Modeling (BIM), for instance, is streamlining the design and construction process, making it more efficient and cost-effective. Additionally, the use of drones for land surveying is increasing, pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished.

Another trend is the increased focus on sustainability. Climate change concerns have ignited a shift toward the use of eco-friendly materials and the prioritization of green building practices. This trend serves multiple purposes, reducing environmental impact while also providing solutions that are both cost-efficient and durable.

Lastly, there is a significant emphasis on infrastructure revitalization. Aging infrastructure, coupled with increased urbanization, is necessitating a new wave of projects geared toward updating and improving existing structures and systems. This trend is set to create numerous job opportunities and challenges in the coming years.

Employment projections for civil engineers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of civil engineers is projected to grow 7 percent through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. As infrastructure continues to age, they will be needed to manage projects to rebuild, repair, and upgrade bridges, roads, levees, airports, buildings, and structures of all types.

Civil engineer career tips

Understand the bigger picture

Beyond the technical detail, it’s crucial to understand the broader context of your projects. Familiarize yourself with the overarching objectives and how your work positively impacts society. This greater understanding contributes to better communication with non-engineer stakeholders, from clients to community members.

Focus on client relationship management

Building successful client relationships is crucial. Understanding what the client wants and translating that into a plan can be challenging but is vital. Always ensure that you are communicative, open, and reactive to their needs, while also being proactive in presenting ideas and solutions.

Stay updated with technological advancements

Technology is continuously evolving and impacting all areas. Stay up-to-date with the latest technological advancements in your field by learning about new tools and systems that can make your work more efficient, and keep up with industry changes.

Evaluate and refine your project management skills

Project management is a crucial aspect of civil engineering. It involves coordinating with diverse teams, managing resources, meeting deadlines, and ensuring the successful completion of a project. Regularly evaluate and refine these skills to stay on top of your projects.

Build a professional network

Building a strong professional network can significantly benefit your career. It can provide opportunities for mentorship, learning, collaboration, and job opportunities. Professional associations and networks to consider include:

  • American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
  • Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE)
  • Civil Engineering Network (CIVNET)
  • International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE)
  • Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

Pursue continuous learning

Continuous learning is a key to success. Changes in technology, regulations, and standards require a commitment to ongoing education. Consider:

  • Taking advanced courses in project management
  • Enrolling in training programs to learn about new software or technology
  • Attending seminars and webinars to stay updated with industry trends
  • Reading industry publications regularly
  • Taking up specialized certifications like the PE certification or Project Management Professional (PMP) certification

Where the civil engineer jobs are

Top employers

  • Bechtel
  • CH2M Hill
  • Jacobs Engineering Group
  • Fluor Corporation

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Monster
  • Engineerjobs.com
  • CareerBuilder


What are the core skills required for a civil engineer?

Concrete skills required include a high degree of proficiency in mathematics and physics, familiarity with design software, understanding of building and construction methods, and knowledge of safety and legal regulations. Soft skills include project management capabilities, leadership, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities.

What typical tasks are involved in civil engineering?

Typical tasks include researching and providing estimates for projects, testing building materials, using design software to plan and visualize projects, managing construction crews, inspecting projects to monitor progress and adherence to safety codes, and presenting reports on project status to clients and stakeholders.

How important is practical experience for a civil engineer?

Practical experience is extremely important. Many educational programs include internships or co-op opportunities to gain applied experience. Participating in hands-on experience can allow one to understand the complexities and nuances of civil projects, including dealing with unexpected challenges or obstacles.

What are the main challenges faced by civil engineers?

Primary challenges include dealing with cost and time constraints on projects, minimizing the environmental impact of building projects, ensuring the safety and durability of structures, and staying updated with evolving technology and regulations in the industry.

Is civil engineering a stressful profession?

Like many professions, it can be stressful at times due to high levels of responsibility, tight project deadlines, budget issues, and dealing with unexpected problems that arise during construction. However, stress levels can vary widely depending on the nature of the projects and the specific role within the field.

Is there a demand for civil engineers?

Yes, civil engineering is generally a high-demand field. The demand is driven by ongoing needs for infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges, tunnels, and buildings. Population growth and urban development also contribute to the demand. Additionally, there’s a steady need for civil engineers to maintain, upgrade, or replace existing infrastructure.

What continuing education is required for civil engineers?

Ongoing learning is a key part of maintaining competency and staying up-to-date. This might involve attending workshops, seminars, or training programs to learn about new technologies or changes in regulations. In many jurisdictions, maintaining a civil engineering license requires a certain amount of continuing education hours each year.

What are some related professions to civil engineering?

Related professions include architecture, surveying, urban planning, construction management, and structural engineering. These fields also involve designing, constructing, or managing the built environment, and there is often collaboration among these professionals on projects.

Can civil engineers work from home?

While certain aspects of the job can be done from home, such as planning, design, and reporting, a significant portion of the work typically requires being on-site to oversee projects and make assessments in person. However, the extent to which they can work remotely will depend on their specific role and the nature of their projects.

What is the work-life balance like for civil engineers?

The work-life balance can vary significantly, depending on factors such as the size and nature of the projects, and the specific role. These engineers sometimes work long hours to meet project deadlines, and may occasionally have to work on nights and weekends. However, flexible work arrangements are also possible in some positions.