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Civil Engineering: Structuring Your Career

Aging systems are creating a need for civil engineers

By Eric Luchman

Students pursuing a career in civil engineering can rest assured that their skills will be needed to uphold the physical structures that keep society up and running. From refurbishing old highways to moving water from point A to point B to design our biggest skyscrapers, longest bridges and deepest tunnels, civil engineers play an imperative role in designing the structures that are a major part of our everyday lives.

“Transportation is remaining strong,” says Assistant Dean of Engineering at South Dakota State University, Dr. Richard Reid about the future of civil engineering. And transportation isn’t just focused on highway construction—it also includes the transportation of water from lakes to water treatment plants to the water in your kitchen sink.

“Environmental factors, such as pollution control, fresh water and storm water management are some of the issues [civil engineers] face,” says Reid.

“Aging systems are 20 to 30 years old, and there are changing production standards,” Reid continues. “There is a need for civil engineers to design new plants and technologies to make upgrades to treat water.”

Distribution of water is not a problem in a large metropolitan areas, but it is an issue in less populated locations. In places where there is no economic growth, there are fewer tax dollars to be spent on multi-million dollar projects. This is especially true in places like South Dakota—a state that is home to many rural communities that are underserved with water. The transportation of water is an issue that is being tackled at South Dakota State, however, thanks to the $423 million dollar Lewis and Clark project.

The 30-below winters and 100-degree summers take a toll on South Dakota highways, and Reid sees the continued focus on improving highway infrastructure as a concentration for future civil engineers. Maintaining the high volume roads in South Dakota is another area of research at South Dakota State.

Help Wanted

Recent graduates in civil engineering will find an abundance of jobs within government sectors, such as operating authorities and state and federal regulators. Other areas to look for employment are consulting firms, waste management firms, construction companies and contractors that will be continually impacted by new and updated regulations.

“The criteria set by governmental authorities often determines the demand for civil engineers,” says Dr. Charles Haas, L Drew Betz chair professor of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department at Drexel University. “But there is a continual demand for civil engineers in construction, project management, site development and supervision.” Tim Murphy, associate principal of Rick Engineering, a San Diego civil engineering firm with offices also located in Phoenix; Riverside, Calif.; and Orange County, Calif., agrees wholeheartedly. “For seven or eight years we’ve been really busy, and the need for housing fuels it,” he says. According to Murphy, about 80% to 85% of Rick Engineering’s business is from housing.

But doesn’t this go against rising interest rates and a cooling housing market? “We don’t appear to be affected by the economy and there is no slow down yet,” he states.
Rick Engineering employs about 500 people total and also does land surveying, landscaping and transportation construction. If you’re going to work for a firm like Rick Engineering, it’s good to know what type of work you’ll be doing once you graduate. If you’re already in an engineering program, you’ve probably already started a co-op or internship program. All of Dr. Haas’ undergrads at Drexel University are in co-op programs and one-fourth of them are working full-time. Some work for firms like Urban Engineers, located in Philadelphia, while others work for the City of Philadelphia. Co-ops give students the experience they need before going to work full-time.

Dr. Reid says that many graduates are involved in project management. “It varies depending on the size of the firm. You might be involved with project design and be put in the field early,” says Reid. “Smaller firms might have graduates focus on design, where a larger firm would have a formal mentor program where mentors give guidance to new engineers.” Reid adds that oftentimes during the months where construction is at its lowest, new hires will spend time in the office learning the management side of running the business.

At Rick Engineering, Murphy says that they like to hire engineers with two to five years of experience, but lately they have had trouble finding experienced engineers and have relied on internship programs and hiring recent graduates. “We’ve gotten less selective in our hiring criteria because it’s been hard to find experienced engineers,” he explains.

Increasing Your Potential

Are you willing to spend a few more years in the classroom? If you think that someday you would like to own your own engineering firm or get into upper management at a firm, you might want to consider pursuing an advanced degree. Both Dr. Reid and Dr. Haas recommend pursuing a master’s degree or possibly a doctorate. “One-third of our seniors are taking a program that combines a bachelor and master’s and that helps them in their first position,” says Haas. “Twenty percent of our undergrads go on to get their master’s,” adds Reid. “Getting an advanced degree has long-term benefits; you’ll never regret doing it.”

Newly hired civil engineers are seeing starting salaries in the range of $50,000 in larger metropolitan areas and starting around $38,000 in smaller areas, according Dr. Reid. “These numbers are not as different as they seem and can be attributed the cost of living for the area,” says Dr. Reid. And Reid adds that he recently got a few phone calls from companies looking for engineers, but by graduation time, most of his graduating students have already accepted positions.

Building Your Future

Civil engineers aren’t just in demand, they are a necessity. Many civil engineers are involved with Hurricane Katrina clean up, and others are helping to redesign cities and suburbs. Their applied knowledge and skills give birth to magnificent structures and are behind everyday constructions that the general public takes for granted, like the bridges we cross, the malls we shop at, and the houses we live in.

If you enter this field, your future will be spent improving upon already built structures,creating new ones, and contributing innovative ideas and functions to the world around us.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

future of your fieldcivil engineering

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