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A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer

“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.

Paying Your Dues

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).

Present and Future

Civil engineers in Egypt at the time of the Pharoahs built pyramids; civil engineers in classical Greece and Rome built temples, aqueducts, and great public buildings; civil engineers in China built the Forbidden City. Cities could not have been built without civil engineers; they designed every major infrastructure system in the United States today. Civil engineering work over the next decade will be rebuilding, as opposed to constructing, America’s crumbling infrastructure. Most of this will take place in urban areas where budgets are tight and only projects that are in a state of crisis are funded. Civil engineers will also be building water treatment plants and hazardous waste processing sites. Demand for civil engineers is expected to be strong, but applicants should be willing to relocate to areas of need in order to pursue these opportunities.

Quality of Life


Two years into the profession, civil engineers are still cutting their teeth, earning the work experience that will allow them to take the state-sponsored engineering exam. Many do routine construction or administrative assistant work. Many are “junior” engineers directed by more experienced, licensed professionals. Hours are long, but satisfaction is high.


Those who have lasted five years have achieved “assistant” or “grade one” level civil engineering status. Many put in their hardest work in years three through eight, trying to distinguish themselves from other applicants. Fifteen-hour days are not unusual for those on site. Valuable experience is gained. Many must relocate to find positions of responsibility, and few leave. Satisfaction remains high; hours increase


Civil engineers who’ve lasted ten years are in supervisory or management roles. Many are heavily involved in the preconstruction stages of development, but spend less time at the site during the construction phase than they did in earlier years. Some become research engineers, using their practical experience to explore new materials, methods, and ways of building infrastructures. Satisfaction remains high; hours decrease; salary rises.