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Structural Engineering

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering, and its applications are extremely diverse.

By Valerie Anderson

Superman may be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, but the tall buildings wouldn't be there—or still be standing after he leaps over them—if it weren't for structural engineers.

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering, and its applications are extremely diverse. A great deal of what structural engineers do involves designing things to be built, and then helping to build them: buildings, bridges, tunnels, towers. "Probably 75% of our clients are architects," says Scott McConnell, project manager at the engineering firm of Schoor DePalma in Manalapan, N.J. "Most of what I do is building design. The architect comes up with a building design, and then it's the structural engineer's responsibility to fit the structure to the architecture, and decide on what structural system is best suited to that particular building. We design the beams, the columns, the basic members to make the building stand up."

But a structural engineer might also be involved in the demolition or dismantling of a structure, either permanently or in order to repair it. For both of these processes, they need to know about the forces that act on structures—the stresses put on a bridge by heavy traffic or on a high building by strong winds, or on any structure by seasonal temperature changes or earthquakes.

Structural engineers also inspect buildings, both during and after construction, and oversee the use of the concrete, steel and timber of which they are made. They must also be aware of both obvious and inobvious uses for the structures and how these uses affect its design. "For example, if they're putting in sensitive computer equipment or doing pharmaceutical work, you have to use a floor system that's very stiff and doesn't move much," explains McConnell.

Like all engineers whose work may affect life, health or property, new structural engineers go through a rigorous training process during their first few years of work. This training involves several years of work experience under the supervision of experienced engineers and one or more state examinations, and results in a license as a Professional Engineer (P.E.). This is one profession where an advanced degree is more of a necessity than an option.

"My advice to students is that if they're really committed to structural engineering, they should get their master's degree in structural engineering or civil engineering as quickly as possible," says Terry Blackburn, Ph.D., senior vice president and head of the structural department at Schoor DePalma. "The basic courses at the undergraduate level just can't touch on all the necessary aspects of structural engineering. Your advance in the profession is greatly impaired by not having a master's degree."

Along with technical know-how, a structural engineer needs a host of other skills to be able to interact with professional and nonprofessional co-workers and clients. "Sales ability, public speaking and time management are very important when we have to make contact with clients," says Blackburn. "And problem resolution is a skill that isn't typically taught in engineering schools. But when there's an enormous amount of work that costs a lot of money, that is going on very rapidly, and there are problems, then the problems have to be resolved as quickly as possible."

Structural engineers, like other civil engineers, frequently hold the lives of others in their hands, a point that Blackburn says should be explained early and often to would-be structural engineers. "I know I was very surprised at the amount of responsibility that is piled on an engineer," he says. "It's enormous. You hear about things like the Kansas City skyway collapse. Someone is still personally blaming himself today for that. He has to live with that... It's almost heart-stopping when you get a telephone call from a job and something's gone wrong. I think that at some point in the career of most engineers, it just dawns on them, all the responsibility they've assumed over the years—not just the professional responsibility, but the personal liability, too."

Peter Tardy, Senior Structural Engineer


Title: Senior Structural Engineer
Company: French & Parrello Associates
Education: B. S., civil engineering, Rutgers University, M. S., civil engineering with emphasis in structures, Rutgers University

Job Description:

  • New bridge construction
  • Bridge renovation
  • Building design, construction and renovation
  • Structure analysis for placement of communications equipment

Current Projects: Preliminary design phase for replacement of a three-span bridge

Why I Took the Job: "Previously I had been working for a firm that dealt only with bridges. I felt the opportunity to work at a firm with a wider range of projects would give me a better base for a structural engineering background, so I would be able to handle more phases of different kinds of projects."

How My Degree Helped Prepare Me: "By the time you've gotten out of college, you've decided which branch of civil engineering you'd like to go into. Then once you go out and get your first job, hopefully you have the chance to work with a firm that allows you to do many types of structural engineering, working with bridges and buildings... From there, you can focus even further, to bridge or building design or tower analysis for lattice towers, monopoles or transmission towers."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "The biggest thing is communication. That helps the engineers to be able to ask the questions they need to ask, and to be able to understand the answers that they receive. Often, when you get out of college, it's hard to explain yourself or the question you're trying to ask, and then it's difficult to understand the answer that you're getting because you don't have as much knowledge as the person you're working with. Things get busy on the job, so communications allow you to know when and how assignments should be completed."

Advice to Future Structural Engineers: "Always ask questions. Be persistent in trying to learn new ideas. The information is not always as readily available to you as it was in school, so you have to search it out. When you have the opportunity to work on a project and you're asking questions, be persistent enough to get all the information, so that the next time you can complete that assignment on your own."

What the Future Might Hold for Me: "First, I plan to get my Professional Engineering license and further my experience in the field. I think there will be opportunities for me later on to concentrate more in the bridge engineering field, to allow me eventually to take bridge jobs from start to finish."


Title: Project Manager
Company: Schoor DePalma
Education: B.S., civil and environmental engineering, Clarkson University, M. S., civil engineering, Clarkson University

Job Description:

  • Building design
  • Oversight of three engineers and three drafters
  • Maintenance of project budgets and schedules

How I Knew This Was the Field for Me: "My father was a general contractor, so I used to work during the summer for him. Just by being around the building industry, I've always had a lot of satisfaction from seeing a building start from scratch and then go completely up. It's been a very gratifying experience seeing that."

How My Degree Helped Prepare Me: "A lot of the fundamental courses that you take in the civil engineering curriculum are required for structural engineering. Plus I think any engineering school, even more important than teaching you the fundamentals, teaches you how to think and how to solve problems. That's what engineering is about, solving projects and learning to use resources and call on other people if you don't know something, so you can learn how to get the job done."

Advice to Future Structural Engineers: "Make sure you know what you're getting into. I think structural engineering is a lot more technical in nature than civil engineering in general, or than most other engineering fields. Make sure you know the basics."

Biggest Job Surprise: "One of the big surprises going into the field was that even though there is oversight for our calculations, a good portion of the work goes unchecked. You need to have a fair degree of competence in what you're doing. You have to be very technically sharp."

Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "You need a lot of organizational skills, and both verbal and written communications skills on a daily basis. You also need to have strong negotiation skills and leadership skills."

What the Future Might Hold: "I've just recently stepped into this project manager position, and I think upper management is where I'm heading. I think I have more opportunity going in that direction than in pursuing it from the technical end or from the field."

Valerie Anderson is the Senior Editor of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine.

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