What is a Civil Engineer?

A civil engineer designs and oversees the construction of public works, such as roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, buildings, airports, water and sewage systems, and other large infrastructure projects.

Buildings and bridges are often the first structures to come to mind, because they are the most obvious engineering creations. But civil engineers are also responsible for less visible creations and contributions.

Every time we open a water faucet, we expect water to come out, without thinking that civil engineers made it possible, in many cases by designing systems that transport water to cities from mountain sources that are sometimes hundreds of miles away.

So, in the broadest of terms, What is a civil engineer? A civil engineer is someone who applies scientific knowledge to improve infrastructure and common utilities that meet basic human needs.

What does a Civil Engineer do?

A civil engineer doing calculations on a new bridge project.

The field of civil engineering is one of the oldest branches of engineering, dating back to when people first started living in permanent settlements and began shaping their environments to suit their needs.

As populations grew and larger groups of people began living together in towns and cities, there was an increasing need for reliable sources of clean water, the means to dispose of waste, a network of streets and roadways for commerce and trade, and a way for people to defend themselves against hostile neighbors. Early civil engineers, therefore, were called upon to build walls, roads, bridges, dams, and levees; and to dig wells, irrigation ditches, and trenches.

Among the most well-known civil engineering projects of ancient times are the roads of the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde; and Mayan ruins at Copan, Palenque, and Tikal. The construction of many of these wonders by pre-industrial societies remains mysterious and the names of the engineers who designed them are lost to antiquity.

More recent history is also marked by famous civil engineering marvels including the Eiffel Tower, named after Gustave Eiffel, the French civil engineer whose company built it; the Golden Gate Bridge, designed by Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis; the Panama Canal (John Frank Stevens); the Hoover Dam (John L. Savage); and the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by John August Roebling and his son Washington Roebling.

Civil engineers do a lot more than design buildings and bridges. They work in the aerospace industry, designing jetliners and space stations. They can be found in the automotive industry, calculating the load-carrying capacity of a chassis and improving the crash resistance of bumpers and doors. They are part of the ship building industry, the power industry, and multiple other industries requiring constructed facilities.

Civil engineering is a particularly exciting profession, because those that work in this field can see the results of their work: a completed bridge, a high-rise building, a subway station, or a hydroelectric dam.

The civil world is extremely diverse. It follows, therefore, that civil engineers have particularly varied career options. This means that the answer to the question, What does a civil engineer do?, is also varied, depending on the specialty pursued. Regardless of their chosen sub-discipline, however, there are some common tasks that most civil engineers will undertake on a daily basis.

Civil engineers are often responsible for large teams that are involved in project design, planning, and construction processes. This requires that they regularly meet, collaborate with, and manage these team members, composed of surveyors, construction managers, architects, landscape architects, and urban planners.

In addition, they themselves will spend significant amounts of time designing and planning projects and presenting proposals, needs assessments, budgets, and amendments to clients.

The specific activities of a civil engineer change from subfield to subfield and, as described below, the career is composed of a wide spectrum of sub-disciplines:

Architectural Engineering
Architecture is the design of buildings and structures with an emphasis on aesthetics. Architectural engineering combines building design and aesthetics with a focus on sustainable construction and functionality.

This broad discipline is a mix of many other disciplines and it tends to vary from country to country. Architectural engineers have both structural knowledge and creative awareness and skills. Graduates in this area may specialize in one aspect of commercial building design, such as heating, ventilation, fire protection, electrical, or acoustics. Supervision of the construction process is another fundamental skill that architectural engineers develop.

Construction Engineering
Construction engineers manage and deliver residential and/or construction projects. They plan construction activities, supervise structural elements, and perform building inspections upon project completion. They work very closely with architects, architectural engineers, and engineering technicians on building design and on-site problem solving.

They are also responsible for compiling reports which detail project feasibility and cost estimates. Computer Aided Design (CAD) is common in this discipline, although not to the same extent as in structural engineering. Construction engineers are called upon to apply both project management skills and mathematical expertise to their work.

Some may specialize in residential projects, skyscrapers, bridges, industrial warehouses, or other specific types of infrastructure. While demand for these specialists is driven by the health of the construction industry where they seek to be employed, their unique skill set generally means that they are highly sought after in most countries.

Earthquake Engineering
Earthquake engineering is a specialised field in geotechnical engineering. It is a small niche that provides opportunities in a limited number of countries susceptible to earthquakes. Earthquake engineers are, of course, concerned with the vibrations in the Earth’s crust that can potentially cause immense damage to the Earth’s surface.

They identify areas that are at risk of earthquakes and use design and construction techniques to strengthen buildings. They also perform simulation and failure mode analysis to design structural elements that can withstand exposure to earthquakes without sustaining major structural damage.

Ecological Engineering
Ecology is about the interaction between organisms and their environment, called ecosystems. Ecological engineering is a specialized field of environmental engineering that is about the construction and maintenance of these ecosystems.

Engineers in this discipline can focus on either natural ecosystem maintenance or the construction of artificial ecosystems. A tropical rainforest is an example of a natural ecosystem, one that possesses a greater diversity of plant and animal life than any other type of ecosystem. An ecological engineer will consider the health of the rainforest’s trees and the animals that live in their canopy.

Environmental Engineering
The emphasis of this branch of civil engineering is maintaining the quality of air, water, and land through sustainable practice and methods. Environmental engineers create plans to protect and improve the environment; that is everything created by nature: air, water, flora, and fauna.

They implement strategies to deal with pollution, waste management, and noise levels. They conduct case studies and then determine ways to prevent natural disasters and pollution. Much of their work is conducted in an office and is focused on data and statistical analysis. These engineers rarely use design or simulation software. They must understand complex environmental laws and related ethical and social issues.

Environmental engineers are sought after to lead government projects administered by parks departments. Private companies may enlist the services of these specialists if their activities have the potential of exerting an adverse effect on the natural environment. Environmental engineers may also be employed as consultants or as researchers at universities.

Fire Protection Engineering
This is another specialized field of environmental engineering. Fire protection engineering relates to all factors that affect the safety of humans in the event of a fire. Fire safety or fire protection engineers develop plans and identify tactics for reducing smoke and fire damage in houses, commercial buildings, and cities at large. They liaise with architects and builders throughout the design phase of a building, and pay particular attention to alarm systems, stairwells, insulation, and ventilation.

These engineers are typically employed or contracted by construction and development companies. They may become inspectors, who determine the causes and ways to prevent fires.

Geotechnical Engineering
Geology comprises the dynamic and physical history of the earth, including rocks, minerals, and elements it is made of. Geotechnical engineering is the practical application of geology. Engineers in this field understand construction materials and techniques.

They investigate the quality of land and how structures can be constructed within and upon it. They use their knowledge and understanding of earth materials to determine the appropriate supports and foundations needed for massive structures. This process begins with a feasibility study of a site by testing for soil quality, ground slope, and rock features. They design foundations and put measures in place to mitigate the effects of natural hazards such as earthquakes.

Geotechnical engineers must consider sustainable practices when investigating and planning any construction. They often work for mining and petroleum companies and tend to have a broad skill set that includes economic and project management.

Highway Engineering
Highway engineering is a specialized field within transportation engineering. The discipline considers the design of roads, as well as their relation to pedestrians. Highway engineers study traffic volumes and patterns to come up with strategies that prevent collisions and damage to road structures.

They design highway systems with the intention of optimizing traffic flow and vehicle safety. More recently, this field has begun to envision and design intelligent transport systems that will eventually revolutionize how humans travel.

Hydraulic Engineering
Hydraulic engineering is another specialized field in environmental engineering. This discipline addresses the technical challenges involved with water infrastructure and sewerage design. It deals with fluid flow in large quantities and focuses on the design of water storage (dams, channels, canals, lakes) and transport facilities.

Hydraulic engineers also design machinery which uses hydraulic power and structural elements that can withstand intense water pressure. They use fluid dynamics theory to predict how flowing water interacts with its surroundings. These specialists are often employed by utilities companies for storm water and sewerage maintenance.

Mining Engineering
Mining is the act of extracting coal and metal bearing rocks and minerals (ore) from mines. Mining engineering, a specialized field in geotechnical engineering, deals exclusively with the extraction and processing of ore.

Mining engineers, who are multi-skilled in many areas of engineering, analyze data from drilling and geological reports before planning and designing mining sites. They may be required to visit a site to supervise or inspect the progress of a project. These specialists sometimes have to travel for extended periods.

Railway Engineering
Railway engineering is a specialized field in transportation engineering. This discipline centres on the design, construction, and operation of trains and rail systems to transport people and/or freight. Railway engineers apply mechanical design skills and knowledge of propulsion systems to design train vessels.

Structural Engineering
This engineering sector focuses on the design of structures – houses, buildings, and monuments – that are required to withstand loads and environmental elements. Structural engineers collaborate closely with architects. While architects conceive the external design and aesthetics, these engineers design a structure’s internal skeleton and foundation to ensure that it does not collapse.

With their knowledge of building codes and regulations, they execute drawings and specifications of structural elements. Based on their in-depth understanding of materials and their properties, they select the most appropriate ones for each project. Not surprisingly, structural engineers often find employment or consulting contract opportunities with commercial and industrial construction companies.

Traffic Engineering
A sub-set of transportation engineering, traffic engineering is concerned with the movement of people and vehicles, usually on roads and highways. Traffic engineers consider, review, and modify aspects of road design to optimize traffic flow and reduce congestion. They also analyze and assess traffic and accident reports and the impacts of traffic lights, road signs, and pedestrian walkways to ultimately create safer roads.

Transportation Engineering
The focus of transportation engineering is twofold. The discipline manages existing transportation systems and also researches new and emerging technologies aimed at improving transport of people, goods, and structures in industrialized countries.

Engineers in this sector plan and manage all of the elements that jointly make transport happen. They look beyond the present and contemplate and envision the transportation needs and challenges of future societies.

This work often demands an understanding of vehicle propulsion and maintenance and may entail specialization in air, road, rail, or pedestrian transport. Government agencies and private transportation companies commonly employ transportation engineers to maintain efficiency, reduce system costs, manage safety initiatives, and conduct investigations.

Water Resource Engineering
The study of water throughout the world is at the centre of water resource engineering. This includes drinking water and any water that must be stored or distributed or transported from one place to another.

Unlike hydraulic engineering, which focuses on the technical aspects of storing and channelling water, this discipline considers the quality and logistics of water systems. Common projects for water resource engineers include wetland restoration, as well as storm water and sewerage system design and planning.

A civil engineer looking out at a city view.

By now, it is likely clear that the field of civil engineering has a very wide scope. The job is not a traditional one. There is no such thing as a typical day. Every project is different. One could have you working a 50-hour, five-day week. Another could have you working nights in a different part of the country. Still another could have you travelling abroad to conduct a brief site inspection or to manage a longer-term project.

The following examples of civil engineering projects illustrate the diversity of work that the field offers:

  • A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted tests to determine how well buildings made of cold-formed steel can withstand earthquakes.

  • Engineers at the University of Maryland worked on developing smart bridges that can send out warnings when they are in danger of collapsing.

  • In Los Angeles, civil engineers who are experts in structural monitoring helped art conservators preserve the iconic Watts Towers monument.

Are you suited to be a civil engineer?

Civil engineers have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if civil engineer is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Civil Engineer like?

Much of the work that civil engineers do entails detailed designs and calculations performed in an office environment. This is not to say, however, that these engineers do not get out into the field.

They make fairly frequent trips to construction sites, mining sites, or other outdoor sites to monitor operations, supervise their teams, complete surveying and analysis tasks, solve onsite problems, and collaborate with other professionals involved in their projects.

When managing projects, civil engineers may, in fact, work largely from their car or truck as they move from site to site. Occasionally, they travel abroad to work on large engineering projects in other countries. They typically work full time; and about a third of them work more than forty hours per week.

The following is a list of the most common industries in which civil engineers are employed.

A wide range of positions exists within each industry:
- Mining and Drilling
- Residential Construction
- Commercial Construction
- Urban Planning
- Water and Gas Infrastructure
- Sewerage Systems
- Renewable Energy
- Transportation Agencies
- Government Agencies

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28% of civil engineers in the U.S. are employed by government agencies. In the private sector, civil engineers frequently work for or with construction firms, with those jobs making up approximately 50% of civil engineering positions.

Typical job titles for civil engineers include:
- Construction Inspector
- Project Engineer
- Supervising Engineer
- Associate Civil Engineer
- Civil Engineer
- City Engineer
- Field Engineer
- Development Manager

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a civil engineer and an architect?

Both civil engineers and architects are involved in planning and designing structures. However, a civil engineer will concentrate on making sure the structure will be safe and be able to endure everyday and extreme conditions, while the architect will focus on the aesthetics of the structural work, as well as concentrate on the look, feel, and functionality.

The civil engineer will analyze and evaluate the structural integrity of the design that the architect has created, and find ways to make the construction design possible by suggesting alterations/modifications in order to turn the architect's vision into reality.

Civil engineers and architects often work with each other, as their work sometimes overlaps. A good working relationship between the two professions will make a construction job more effective and successful.

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What is some good advice for civil engineering students?

Meet up with a professional civil engineer and ask a few well thought-out questions as to what working as a civil engineer is really like. It's surprising how people will gladly give a little of their time to help out an aspiring fellow professional.

Get an internship and spend as much time with professional civil engineers as possible. It's only by exposure to the industry that you'll be able to get an idea of what it's like to work in it.

Figure out ahead of time what type of civil engineering path you'd be interested in, and consider the future of that industry.

If you choose a mature field of civil engineering, you will most likely have a slower but stable growth in your career. If you choose a niche field, you'll probably make more money, but sacrifice the experience in becoming a well-rounded civil engineer.

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What is it like being a civil engineer?

Civil engineering is a very demanding yet fulfilling career, as the engineer is able to work on a project from its inception right to its completion. When you drive over a bridge, see a building, fly out of an airport, or visit a museum, a civil engineer has had a major part in that project.

Civil engineers have many duties; they interact with clients, customers, inspectors, suppliers, vendors, architects, and design teams. They submit and revise drawings many times over until they are approved. They also spend time tendering, looking at reports, doing cost estimates, analyzing designs and infrastructures, testing, commissioning, and spend time on construction sites to see what progress is being made on projects.

Construction sites need to be visited and monitored frequently, in all kinds of weather conditions, to make sure work is going smoothly and disputes are resolved in a timely manner in order to meet specific deadlines.

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Do architects and civil engineers work together?

The two main designers of a structure are the architect and the civil engineer; both professions being integral to the structure's execution and construction. Their responsibilities often overlap.

The architect will design a space to meet the client's needs, and will come up with blueprints for both the inside and outside of a building. Because the architect is ultimately responsible that the building is safe for its occupants, he or she will work closely with a civil engineer to ensure the structure meets all the appropriate building codes.

The civil engineer can also advise and/or select the appropriate structural materials, and help with specifying the plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems that will be needed.

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Civil Engineers are also known as:
Transportation Engineer City Engineer