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Civil Engineering: Job Hunting

Entry-level civil engineers have a wide-open field of technological and employment opportunities.

By Charlotte Thomas

Looking into the career crystal ball, what does the future of hiring look like for civil engineers?

It depends on who’s doing the fortune telling. You’ll hear predictions about the economy gyrating all the way from disastrous to great, and jobs going from copious to scarce. However, what’s not picked up is the steady hum of employment opportunities for civil engineers.

If anything, the job market for civil engineers has gradually been heating up as other industry sectors cool down. “Civil engineering graduates are getting good jobs. The rate of salary growth has been excellent for a number of years,” reports Nicholas Sitar, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He sees the salary gap between civil engineers and electrical engineers closing significantly because of plummeting nationwide undergraduate engineering enrollment. This means there are—and will continue to be for the foreseeable future—fewer civil engineers to go around. “Employers [who hire civil engineers] realize that they must make jobs more attractive and financially rewarding,” reflects Sitar.

But don’t start dreaming of those once fabled dotcom salaries and job offers to pop out of the woodwork. Civil engineering graduates from the class of 2001 had to work harder to get top jobs than graduates did in 2000, and most likely, you will too. Camille Luckenbaugh, employment manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which researches and publishes information about issues affecting careers and employment for all college graduates, says employers are playing a wait-and-see game. They’re recruiting, but are more cautious about who they hire. Luckenbaugh says she hears from some employers that say they’re actually pleased about the economic slowdown because the competition for top talent isn’t quite as steep as it was before.

Ann Herrmann, a career counselor from the University of Colorado at Boulder career services center, says recruiting for their engineers was very strong for the class of 2001, but adds a note of prudence. “In 2000, the job market was moving at 100 mph while for the class of 2001, it was going 65 mph. It’s still at a good, strong pace,” she states.

Mark Savage, director of engineering co-op and career services at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., thinks the job market for civil engineers is at a crossroads. He’s unsure what will happen in the next several months, but he’s optimistic. He says that for the last three years employment for civil engineers has been good.

So Who’s Hiring and Where Are the Jobs?

While you probably will be choosing among several good job offers, if you drill down into the particular areas of civil engineering, you’ll find that some fields are hotter than others. Larry Roth, assistant executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), says people in his field are not usually employed in the more volatile high-tech segment of the economy. Thus, the sectors in which civil engineers get jobs are healthy and, at least in the near future, recession-proof. Jobs in areas such as transportation and construction, particularly in the repair and replacement of the nation’s infrastructure, seem to be more secure than ever. In general, construction is going strong given the level of building in the United States. Hermmann concurs, “As the population continues to grow, there will be a continued need for people who know how to build.”

The demand for civil engineers in the construction field results from the increased need for facilities for data storage and telecommunication, according to Daniel Halpin, professor of civil engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. These high-tech industries have special requirements such as air conditioning and exceptionally clean rooms. Building in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries is growing as well.

Another huge area of hiring activity is transportation, which is particularly active in California. Roth reports that in order to get the number of civil engineers they need, California’s department of transportation (Caltrans) is offering competitive salaries. “They can’t hire fast enough,” he says.

Halpin agrees, saying Caltrans is even venturing to Illinois to recruit. “Five years ago, they were well-satisfied with the products of the California schools, which were large in number and high in quality,” he says. “That’s not enough for them now.”

The environmental side of civil engineering hasn’t grown as rapidly as most thought it would; however, Savage points out that they had two and a half times the number of employers this year over last year at an environmental career fair at Cornell. Though recruitment for environmental engineers is still going strong at Purdue, Halpin sees it trailing off a little.

Thinking Outside the Box

While civil engineers will find plenty of challenging jobs within their discipline, they’re also being tapped for jobs outside civil engineering, such as with consulting companies. “They are starting to make a dent in the supply line,” says Roth. Firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. aren’t interested in civil engineering skills but rather problem solving and numeric ability. They value the whole design process civil engineers learn.

Savage took a look at the roster of employers from his class of 2001 and saw a number going into the financial services sector. “They traditionally pay higher than civil engineering firms. The civil engineer’s diploma is flexible. So many companies are looking for their analytic skills and their comfort with numbers,” remarks Savage.

UC Berkeley’s Sitar has also noticed that some outstanding civil engineering graduates are going into jobs in areas such as data mining and risk analysis.

Will a Master’s Be a Must?

Yes, says Halpin. “The basic civil engineering degree gives you the technical foundation, but there’s not enough time to learn about some aspects of managing technical people.” And he’s seeing more and more civil engineers being placed in leadership positions.

In addition, says the ASCE’s Roth, a master’s degree is ideal if you’re going to specialize in a particular area such as geotechnical, structural, environmental or transportation engineering. The level of sophistication in civil engineering today requires an advanced degree. “Technology is advancing at an exponential rate, yet many civil engineering undergraduate programs are being encouraged to reduce credit hours and to increase emphasis on liberal arts and social sciences,” he says. “We cannot accommodate all three. ASCE believes that a master’s degree and continuing education is needed to ensure the technical savvy of our future engineers.”

Back to Basics

Many, however, disagree with Roth and see the increased emphasis on liberal arts as crucial to graduates, recognizing the importance of a well-rounded education for civil engineers.

Communication skills are among the most important skills for civil engineers to have, according to Joseph Schofer, department chair of civil engineering at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. “If you want to achieve success, you have to be able to communicate with people, orally and in writing,” he says. “People who aren’t that good at dealing with people are not going to the be the most successful in the field.”

It could even mean the difference between getting the job you want. Schofer contends that employers expect all engineering graduates to have good technical skills, so the candidates that stand out are the ones with the business skills. “They look for somebody they can send out into the world to talk to real people,” he says.

James Hunt, professor of environmental engineering at University of California, Berkeley, concurs and warns against specializing too early. “There is a tendency in civil engineering for students to identify themselves with a specialty area right away,” he says. “That’s not healthy. Students need an appreciation of the breadth of the civil engineering profession.”

Hunt states that recognizing civil engineering as an interface between societal problems and technology is especially important. “We have water systems at capacity and urban transportation systems falling apart. The network that makes societies work is starting to fall apart,” he says. “That is where civil and environmental engineers fit.”

Graduates also need to be wary of relying too much on technology to do their jobs, Hunt says. “Because of the pervasive nature of computers, people don’t understand that they actually have to go out and measure things,” he says. “They don’t realize measurements come with errors and uncertainties and biases.”

And computers are only a small part of the new technologies being developed that will greatly impact civil engineers in the years to come. Purdue’s Halpin says use of new technologies such as microtunneling (the horizontal directional drilling of pipe lines ranging from 12 inches to 12 feet in diameter) and composites (fiber-reinforced plastics that are lighter to handle and less subject to corrosion) are beginning to be used by civil engineers and have great potential for the future. Although currently used to make airplane fuselages more lightweight, Halpin predicts composites will be used in the construction of bridges, making them lighter than the classical concrete slab systems used today.

Halpin also points to the evolving global positioning systems (GPS) as a breakthrough waiting just around the corner. “Using GPS’s, we are able to measure the location of equipment down to plus or minus a centimeter,” he says. Halpin says eventually operators could be “assisted by information that’s available electronically through the consul of the equipment that tells them exactly within a centimeter where the equipment is located.”

“We’re not quite there yet, but that’s the future,” he adds.

Other new technologies and innovations such as real-time video are driving many of the changes in civil engineering. “The contractor is on the scene, but the designers and architects may be in other places,” says Schofer. “People in the field are getting the latest drawing updates with the capability to monitor what’s going on at a construction site.”

“Now we’re in a position to exchange information very rapidly, to make decisions, to do collaborative management, so that everybody is involved,” he remarks. “It has really become the standard way of operating on large construction projects.”

It also means changes in the way projects are managed. Fewer managers and engineers are on site, making room for more less-skilled workers to be guided by civil engineers. “A smaller number of people can be on top of a larger number of projects at any one time, and there are ways these people can interact,” Schofer says. “It gives engineers multiple sets of hands to do more at one time.”

Halpin agrees, addressing the importance of knowing how to coordinate many engineers. “Civil engineering graduates need to be able to manage other people,” he says.

And if you can do this effectively, you may have the opportunity to advance quickly into management, if you so desire. According to Schofer, even though starting salaries for civil engineers are at the lower end of the engineering salary spectrum, you can make up the difference rapidly. “A lot of our best people are getting into project management,” he says. “People that are two years out are managing $20-$50 million worth of construction in the field.”

Charlotte Thomas writes about career issues for the entry-level engineering and computer market.

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