“If you’re the type of kid who built whole cities out of blocks in his bedroom, look into civil engineering.” Civil engineers build real cities, from roads and bridges to tunnels, public buildings, and sewer systems. Projects have three phases: preconstruction planning, implementation, and infrastructure maintenance. The preconstruction phase involves surveying land, reviewing plans, assessing funding and needs, then making decisions about schedule, materials, and staffing. Most work is done indoors during this phase. Implementation is where construction begins, and many civil engineers spend considerable time on-site reviewing progress and coordinating all construction. One engineer said, “Sometimes you live out there for two or three days at a time.” Problems must be solved on the spot, and civil engineers are the only ones with the knowledge and responsibility to do so. Infrastructure maintenance, which includes stress tests, evaluations, and on-going support, takes place after construction is finished. Civil engineers move back to their offices to wrap up all paperwork and make all final adjustments to the project. Then it is time to start the process again.
Civil engineers work hard. Hours can be long, government funding cuts can destroy a project, deadlines are firm, and weather can throw projects off schedule. If the timetable degenerates, an engineer has to overcome scheduling obstacles with ingenuity. Nearly all our surveys mentioned creativity as the first or second most important trait a civil engineer can have. About half of all civil engineers are employed by federal, state, or local governments, which means they must be ready for bureaucratic delays, political stalls, and lots and lots of paperwork. Though civil engineers don’t know where or when their next project will be, this doesn’t seem to faze them. “Projects can last up to ten years, so it’s not exactly like you’re moving every week,” said one engineer we spoke with. Satisfaction is strong; most wouldn’t trade their occupation for any other.
Civil engineers must have an engineering degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and three to four years of work experience. They also must pass a state-sponsored Professional Engineer examination. Many civil engineers find it helpful to join a professional association, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Civil engineers are planners by nature, and many pursue managerial jobs that allow them to use this skill. They are particularly good at estimating labor and materials needs, and many become professional staffers and materials buyers. Some become materials researchers, while others become inspectors, checking the work of other civil engineers and receiving more regular hours for less pay.