Guide to College Majors in Engineering

Engineering is an activity other than purely manual and physical work which brings about the utilization of the materials and laws of nature for the good of humanity.
--R. E. Hellmund

What Is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of infrastructure such as roads, buildings, tunnels, airports, dams, bridges, and water supply and sewage systems. One of the oldest of the engineering disciplines, civil engineering encompasses many specialties, including structural, water resources, environmental, construction, transportation and geotechnical engineering.

A civil engineering degree program applies mathematics and physical science to solve specific, real-world problems in commerce and industry. A strong civil engineering program typically emphasizes the practical use of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus in conjunction with physics, material science, and chemistry. Online degree programs in civil engineering, primarily available at the master's level, allow experienced students and professionals to learn advanced theory.

Civil engineers work as part of a team with a wide range of backgrounds and often use theory and models to predict how a design will perform. They generally test ideas in the field using scale mockups, so they can prove new design theories without endangering lives or jeopardizing project budgets.

Civil Engineering Career Trends

Firms providing engineering consulting services, primarily developing designs for new construction projects, employ a little over half of civil engineers Almost a third of work in federal, state, and local government agencies. The construction and manufacturing industries accounts for most of the remaining employment. Approximately 12,000 civil engineers are self-employed, many as consultants.

Due to general population growth and an expanding economy, more civil engineers will be needed to design and construct higher-capacity transportation, water supply, pollution control systems, and large buildings and building complexes. They will also be needed to repair or replace existing roads, bridges, and other public structures. There may be additional opportunities within non-civil engineering firms, such as management consulting or computer services firms.

Civil Engineering Career Education

Bachelor's Degrees in Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is inherently an interdisciplinary field. Often, students select courses in related application areas, such as computer science, applied mathematics, urban and regional planning, economics, chemistry and management. During their degree programs, civil engineering majors learn to take a holistic approach to solving problems. By blending creative use of math and science with a psychological understanding of citizens' needs, future civil engineers can continue to make breakthroughs in design and efficiency.

To earn a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, students complete courses in mathematical and computational methods, as well as courses geared more specifically toward the application of these methods to real-world problems. Typically, the student completes this curriculum within four to five years. Almost all entry-level engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree.

Online Degree Programs in Civil Engineering

Designed for working adults, online degree programs combine the convenience of home study with the expertise of experienced faculty. Students interested in augmenting their bachelor's training can obtain an M.S. through participation in online coursework or in an individual project under the guidance of an instructor, as administered through video seminars, chat rooms, forums and so on. A graduate degree is highly recommended, particularly because the job duties of a civil engineer lend themselves to management positions that require it.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Civil Engineering?

Civil engineers are employed primarily by government departments, utilities, architectural firms, builders, and engineering firms. There are also career options available in education and consulting. Civil engineering is far from your average desk job. Engineers are often on the move, working outdoors at construction sites, sometimes in offices, and sometimes in research labs.

Civil engineers work in all parts of the country, and some spend their entire careers traveling and working on different projects. About half of civil engineers work for public authorities. In the private sector, civil engineers can work not only for traditional engineering firms, but also for telecommunication businesses, consulting firms, or even toy and athletic equipment manufacturers. A variety of engineering specialties are open to qualified graduates:

  • Transportation engineers work with local and regional planning boards to identify areas of growth and development. They also look for opportunities to alleviate traffic snarls. Once they understand the needs of drivers in a region, they design plans and develop cost estimates for construction projects.
  • Structural engineers work with architects and builders to assure that steel and other material used in construction projects exceeds the needs of a given project. With advances in technology and an abundance of creative new building materials, today's structural engineers work on a wider variety of projects than ever before.
  • Geo-technical engineers help builders excavate underground projects and work with experts who manage challenging land renewal projects. When cities want to expand their underground mass transit systems, they call in geo-technical engineers to oversee the tunneling. As more developers erect skyscrapers and other large buildings in urban centers, geo-technical engineers assure that the bedrock can safely sustain the pressure of new structures and the people they will support.
  • Hydraulic/Hydrology/Water Resource engineers redirect water to benefit residents and businesses in a community. They construct canals to speed up shipping while preserving the natural flow of wild fish through a region, and build dams that generate vital electricity while opening up potential new parcels of land for development. Some hydraulic engineers design pipelines that safely transfer fresh water to remote areas, allowing new communities to thrive.
  • Wastewater engineers help improve both our environment and our economy by helping communities and businesses dispose of waste without polluting natural water sources. Until very recently, factories and refineries dumped their industrial waste into rivers and streams (some still do, though it's now illegal).Today, wastewater engineers develop sewage treatment plants that can remove waste products from water, returning pure water to streams and reservoirs.
  • Environmental engineers are in astonishingly high demand as developed countries finally address the climate change crisis. Environmental engineers work closely with business leaders and government officials to institute new air pollution standards that reduce harmful emissions from factories without negatively impacting industrial output. Environmental engineers also examine the quality of our soil, ensuring that harmful toxins do not seep up through the ground and contaminate crops, animals, businesses and homes.
  • Compliance officers work in both corporate and government settings to ensure that local and federal laws are observed in the construction, maintenance, and operation of all kinds of facilities. Compliance officers working in the private sector help their employers prepare for upcoming inspections by anticipating and eliminating sources of pollution or substandard construction. In-house compliance officers simulate visits from official inspectors, saving their companies significant amounts of money through their proactive approach.
  • Construction managers use their engineering and leadership skills to ensure that building projects are completed on time and under budget. Construction managers must coordinate the efforts of teams of engineers and laborers to meet tight production schedules. They are often the most visible hub of connection between architects, developers, and construction specialists.
  • Government and urban planning engineers often use a combination of skills and specialties to coordinate public works and private construction in their communities. Traditionally, government planning engineers forged relationships with state agencies that would provide funding or construction of major projects. Local planning engineers would help residents understand the potential environmental impact of new highways or infrastructure projects.

More recently, local governments across the country have strengthened their internal planning systems and hired more engineers. By creating comprehensive land development plans as part of their long-range strategies, cities and towns can position themselves to benefit from explosive growth without succumbing to overwhelming demands on water systems or roads. When residents manage engineering issues internally, they retain more control over the shape and the scope of development in their communities.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Anyone who provides engineering services to the public must be licensed. Certification as a professional engineer requires a degree from an accredited engineering program, four years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a state examination in the fundamentals, principles and practice of engineering.

The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying also administers exams twice each year in all 50 states to assist states with evaluating and selecting licensed professional engineers. While it is not always necessary to attain the Professional Engineering (PE) license to practice engineering, this license is required to practice certain government work or to review and approve designs, and some firms require the license for someone to progress to an engineering management position.

Civil Engineering Related Accredited Certifications:

  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • American Academy of Water Resource Engineers (AAWRE)
  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE)
  • Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE)

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