What is an environmental engineer?
Environmental engineers are professionals who use biology, chemistry, and engineering principles to develop solutions for environmental problems. They aim to improve public health by designing systems, ensuring regulatory compliance, and promoting sustainable practices to treat water or air pollution, waste management, and climate change. Engineers with a comprehensive knowledge of environmental science and problem-solving skills are vital to a more sustainable and healthier future.
Duties and responsibilities
An environmental engineer’s work often involves designing, developing, and implementing systems for waste management, water treatment, and pollution reduction. They conduct ecological investigations, prepare reports outlining their findings, and recommend solutions. Environmental regulations are also reviewed and implemented to ensure that projects comply with all relevant federal, state, and local laws.
These engineers often research and propose new environmental technologies or methodologies to improve sustainability. They may handle diverse projects, such as planning and managing waste disposal sites, designing water reclamation systems, or researching the environmental impact of proposed construction projects. Their work may include collaboration with other professionals, including scientists, urban planners, and policymakers, to address complex environmental challenges.
Environmental engineers work in various settings, such as consulting firms, government agencies, corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Their work may take them from offices to outdoor sites to inspect an industrial plant, oversee a waste management facility, or conduct field tests in natural environments. The role often includes collaboration with other professionals and stakeholders.
Typical work hours
Environmental engineers typically work 40 hours per week, from Monday to Friday. Project deadlines, unforeseen issues, fieldwork, or emergencies may require additional hours or travel. Work flexibility depends on the specific role and the employer’s requirements.
How to become an environmental engineer
Becoming an environmental engineer involves acquiring a solid foundation in science and engineering principles, gaining practical experience, and developing skills to solve environmental challenges. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to follow:
Step 1: Obtain a relevant education
The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field like civil or chemical engineering. These programs provide foundational knowledge in chemistry, physics, biology, and various engineering fields. Many programs also include coursework focused on environmental science and sustainable design.
Step 2: Gain practical experience
Practical experience is crucial for aspiring engineers. Internships or cooperative education programs that provide hands-on experience may be offered through your college. Take advantage of opportunities to work on real-world projects, learn from experienced professionals, and gain an understanding of day-to-day responsibilities.
Step 3: Obtain PE licensure
In the U.S., all engineers who offer services to the public must be licensed as Professional Engineers (PEs). The licensure process typically requires a degree from an accredited engineering program, around four years of relevant work experience, and passing scores on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exams.
Step 4: Develop strong analytical and problem-solving skills
You need strong analytical and problem-solving skills to design systems and solutions to protect the environment, which can be developed through coursework and practical experience. Consider tackling complex projects, participating in engineering competitions, or taking courses emphasizing analytical thinking and problem-solving.
Here are some of the options available for continuing education:
- Emmy Award-winning science educator Bill Nye Teaches his methods for solving everyday problems, evaluating information, and thinking like a scientist.
- With Coursera’s Effective Problem-Solving and Decision-Making course, you will gain confidence in assessing problems and selecting the appropriate approaches for implementation.
Step 5: Pursue advanced education or certifications (optional)
While not always required, pursuing a master’s degree or obtaining professional certifications can enhance career prospects. Some engineers earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering or another specialized field. The Board Certified Environmental Engineer (BCEE) certification can also demonstrate expertise and commitment to the profession.
Enrolling in online courses is another great option to further your knowledge. Here are some examples:
- Coursera’s Natural Attenuation of Groundwater Contaminants: New Paradigms, Technologies, and Applications
- Coursera’s Introduction to Environmental Science Specialization
- Udemy’s Water Resources and Environmental Engineering
Step 6: Apply for environmental engineering positions
With the necessary education, licensure, and skills, you are ready to apply for jobs. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight engineering knowledge, environmental projects, and problem-solving skills. Prepare for interviews by researching the company and practicing responses to common interview questions. Leverage networking opportunities like professional engineering associations or alumni networks to discover potential job openings.
How much do environmental engineers make?
The salary of an environmental engineer can vary significantly based on several factors, including geographical location, level of education, work experience, specialty within the field, industry of employment, and company size.
Highest paying industries
- Oil and Gas Extraction: $125,000
- Federal Executive Branch: $112,000
- Management of Companies: $110,000
- Scientific Research and Development $105,000
- Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution: $104,000
Highest paying states
- Alaska: $122,000
- Texas: $118,000
- California: $117,000
- New Mexico: $115,000
- Maryland: $113,000
Types of environmental engineers
In this career guide section, we will explore the different types of environmental engineers, shedding light on their unique roles. While their general responsibilities are consistent, there are several specialized roles based on industry, area of focus, and technical expertise.
Water and wastewater engineer
Water and wastewater engineers design and manage water distribution and treatment systems, ensuring water is safe for consumption and adequately treated before being released into the environment.
Air quality engineer
Air quality engineers focus on assessing and reducing air pollution. They might design systems for industrial facilities to minimize the emission of pollutants or work on large-scale initiatives to improve outdoor air quality. Understanding atmospheric chemistry and the impact of various pollutants on human health and the environment is crucial in this role.
Soil and groundwater engineer
Projects focusing on the prevention, control, and remediation of soil and groundwater contamination may include hazardous waste disposal, brownfield redevelopment, or the cleanup of contaminated sites. Engineers in this specialty need a strong understanding of geology and hydrology.
Ecological engineers use the principles of ecology and engineering to design and manage ecosystems that have been affected by human activities. They may work on habitat restoration projects, wetland creation, or the development of sustainable agricultural systems. These professionals have a deep understanding of ecological processes and human-environment interactions.
Sustainability projects are often related to renewable energy, green building design, and resource efficiency. These engineers focus on implementing practices to reduce the environmental impact of projects and promote sustainable development.
Environmental health and safety engineer
Environmental health and safety engineers ensure that workplaces are safe and do not pose a risk to the environment. Various industries, such as manufacturing and construction, utilize these professionals to certify compliance with safety regulations, identify potential hazards, and implement preventative measures.
Top skills for environmental engineers
This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as an environmental engineer. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.
These professionals work on complex projects that mitigate environmental damage, improve recycling practices, or develop sustainable technologies. They must be able to analyze data, identify potential issues, and develop efficient, cost-effective solutions. A solid foundation in problem-solving enables innovative and more sustainable approaches to environmental challenges.
Project management skills are essential, as they often oversee large projects with various resources, timelines, and teams. Planning, coordinating, and expediently addressing issues are critical to completing projects on time and within budget. These skills drive the successful execution of environmental initiatives and lead to the desired outcomes.
Proficiency in environmental science includes a deep understanding of the principles of biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as environmental regulations and guidelines. This knowledge enables engineers to design and implement effective systems and strategies for environmental protection, waste management, and pollution control.
They will communicate complex technical information to stakeholders, including government officials, fellow engineers, project managers, and the public. Clear and concise communication ensures that project objectives, technical data, and regulatory information are well-understood, fostering collaboration and informed decision-making.
Environmental engineer career path
The career path of an environmental engineer often begins with an entry-level role, such as engineer in training, assistant engineer, or a similar position in a related field like civil or chemical engineering. These roles provide an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge from a bachelor’s degree to a practical setting under the guidance of experienced engineers.
As they gain experience, these professionals take on more complex projects involving environmental protection and sustainability, waste management, water treatment, and air pollution control. This experience can lead to a project engineer or project manager role, managing larger-scale projects and coordinating with multidisciplinary teams.
Continued professional development and specialization in hazardous waste management, sustainable infrastructure, or water resources can open up opportunities for further advancement to senior engineer or technical specialist roles.
With substantial experience and a strong record of successful project management, they can advance to leadership positions such as principal engineer, department head, or director of engineering. Some may even transition into consulting roles, advising organizations on environmental regulations and sustainable practices.
Professional licensure as a PE and advanced degrees like a master’s or a Ph.D. can be instrumental in career advancement. Certification in specific areas, such as the BCEE credential, can also be beneficial.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for environmental engineers
One significant trend shaping the profession is incorporating advanced technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and data analytics to manage environmental projects more effectively. This shift has allowed environmental engineers to conduct more accurate assessments and develop more efficient solutions.
The emphasis on green building and sustainable design principles is also increasing the demand for professionals who can design, build, and maintain eco-friendly structures and systems. With the intensifying regulatory scrutiny on environmental practices, there is an increased demand for engineers to ensure compliance and develop strategies to reduce environmental harm.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for environmental engineers will grow by 4% through 2031, as fast as average for all occupations. This growth is primarily driven by the need for companies to comply with environmental regulations and develop methods of cleaning up existing hazards. In addition, as nations and companies prioritize sustainability and clean energy projects, these engineers will play a key role in designing and implementing these initiatives.
Environmental engineer career tips
Stay updated on environmental regulations and legislation
Staying current on national and local environmental regulations and legislation is essential. This knowledge is crucial in creating systems and solutions that are effective and legally compliant. Make it a habit to review updates to laws and regulations and attend relevant industry seminars or workshops.
Master relevant software and modeling tools
Engineering software and tools aid in designing, analyzing, and optimizing environmental systems. Familiarize yourself with software such as AutoCAD, MATLAB, and GIS systems and seek opportunities to practice and improve skills.
Stay informed about sustainability trends
With a growing emphasis on sustainability, these engineers must stay informed about the latest trends and advancements in sustainable technologies and practices. Participate in relevant webinars, read industry journals, and follow thought leaders on social media to keep up-to-date with developments in the field.
Build a professional network
Networking can provide valuable insights into industry trends, job opportunities, and innovative solutions. Join professional associations and networks to connect with other engineers, share experiences, and learn from their expertise. Relevant associations and networks include:
- American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES)
- Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI)
- National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
- American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
Commit to continuous learning
In the dynamic field of environmental engineering, continuous learning is essential. Dedicate time to furthering your education through earning advanced degrees, obtaining certifications, or attending industry conferences. Some areas for continuous learning include:
- Emerging environmental technologies
- Renewable energy systems
- Climate change impact assessment
- Waste management and recycling technologies
Engage in multidisciplinary collaboration
Environmental engineering often involves collaboration with professionals from other disciplines, such as chemists, biologists, and policymakers. Embrace opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration to gain a broader perspective on environmental challenges and create more holistic solutions. This approach will also help to develop communication and teamwork skills.
Where the environmental engineer jobs are
- Jacobs Engineering
- CH2M Hill
- Tetra Tech
- New York
Top job sites
What qualifications are needed to become an environmental engineer?
To become an environmental engineer, you typically need a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field, such as civil, chemical, or mechanical engineering. Some positions, particularly in research or academia, may require a master’s degree or Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Additionally, engineers often need to be licensed as PE, which requires a degree from an accredited engineering program, work experience, and passing scores on the FE and PE exams.
How can I advance my career as an environmental engineer?
To advance your career, consider pursuing further education, such as a master’s degree or Ph.D. in environmental engineering or a related field. Professional certifications, such as the BCEE or Certified Environmental Professional (CEP), can also enhance professional credentials. Stay current with industry trends and advancements by attending workshops, conferences, and continuing education courses, and publish your research or projects in professional journals or at industry events. Demonstrate leadership and project management skills to take on more complex projects or move into managerial roles.
What are the typical day-to-day tasks of an environmental engineer?
The day-to-day tasks of an environmental engineer can vary depending on the nature of the work and projects. Typical duties include conducting environmental assessments and impact studies, designing and implementing solutions to environmental problems, and monitoring the effectiveness of these solutions. Work may also include preparing reports and documentation, providing technical advice on environmental standards and regulations, and collaborating on projects with other professionals, such as scientists, planners, and legal experts. Some engineers may also spend time on-site, overseeing the implementation of designs or conducting field surveys.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing environmental engineers today?
Some of the biggest challenges include climate change, water scarcity, and pollution; creating solutions to these issues can be complex and multifaceted. Environmental engineers also must navigate a constantly evolving landscape of environmental laws and standards. Additionally, they must often balance the needs and interests of various stakeholders, including businesses, communities, and governments, when developing and implementing solutions.
What is the role of an environmental engineer in sustainable development?
Sustainable solutions must balance economic growth with environmental protection, including technologies or processes to reduce waste and pollution, conserve resources, or mitigate the impacts of climate change. Environmental engineers contribute to sustainable development by conducting environmental impact assessments, providing guidance on environmental regulations, and working with stakeholders to promote environmentally responsible practices.
How do environmental engineers use technology in their work?
Engineers use CAD software to design environmental solutions and GIS to analyze spatial data. Simulation software may be used to model environmental phenomena or the impact of potential solutions. Remote sensing technologies like drones or satellite imagery monitor conditions or collect data. They may also use advanced materials or biotechnologies to develop environmental solutions.
How do environmental engineers collaborate with other professionals?
Collaborations with scientists, planners, architects, and legal experts often occur. Engineers may work with scientists to conduct research or analyze data, with planners or architects to integrate environmental considerations into project designs, or with legal experts to navigate regulations. In all of these collaborations, communication and teamwork skills are critical to understanding the perspectives of other professionals and working together to achieve common goals.
How do environmental engineers contribute to public health?
Environmental engineers design and implement solutions that reduce pollution, improve water and air quality, and manage waste. These systems help to prevent disease spread, minimize exposure to harmful substances, and promote overall well-being. The role includes emergency response, such as developing plans for handling hazardous materials spills or mitigating the impacts of natural disasters. Additionally, by promoting sustainable practices and mitigating the effects of climate change, they contribute to a community’s long-term health and sustainability.