Civil engineering is the most prevalent and, perhaps, the oldest engineering profession. The Greek Acropolis, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Roman aqueducts are only a few of the early feats attributable to the discipline. These days, civil engineers design and oversee the building and maintenance of our bridges, roads, tunnels, buildings, and water supply systems, among other infrastructure projects.
Modern civil engineers face different goals and challenges than their ancient counterparts but regardless of the era, civil engineers have contributed significantly to the betterment of community life and culture. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these days civil engineers are tasked with long-range planning, following local and federal permitting laws, assessing environmental impact, and using computer software to design civil systems such as transportation networks. Renewable energy is also in the wheelhouse of a civil engineer who oversees the overall design and construction of solar and wind farms.
As the global population continues to increase, so too will the demand for highly-qualified civil engineers. This detailed guide traces the steps to become a civil engineer, including the typical education, skills, and credentials to join this high-growth, important field. Career growth and salary projections are also featured below.
Prior to investing time in the pursuit of this career, aspiring civil engineers should have a solid grasp on the skills, knowledge, duties, specializations, and other important aspects of this field. Here is a brief, authoritative primer on what to know about civil engineering.
Must-Have Skills & Knowledge: The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century is a widely-recognized, highly-respected document that defines the field of civil engineering, its methods and principles, and its core knowledge; employers and colleges adhere to its standards. According to the document, civil engineers use math, science, nature’s forces, and materials for the “progressive well-being of humanity.” They create, improve, and protect structures that support community living, industry, and transportation, while simultaneously striving to protect our environment.
Typical Duties: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), civil engineers research and solve problems related to structures, roads, and other projects; evaluate compliance with laws, regulations, or standards; perform data analysis; inspect structures; monitor and control resources; coordinate the work of others; assess the quality and feasibility of projects; draft and specify technical devices, parts, and equipment; and oversee processes and materials, among other responsibilities.
Personal Qualities: To successfully fulfill their duties, civil engineers must be able to make decisions; lead groups; organize their work and that of others; understand and apply mathematical and scientific principles; solve Problems; and communicate effectively
Civil engineering is a broad field divided into several specializations with differing educational and certification options. Here are six of the civil engineering subfields with brief descriptions:
According to CareerOneStop (2020), civil engineers may assume such job titles as bridge or structure inspection leader; structural engineer; county engineer; city engineer; railroad design consultant; water engineer; design engineer; project administrator; chief engineering officer; or chief technical officer, among others.
CareerOneStop (2020) notes that while most civil engineers have bachelor’s degrees, employers increasingly prefer candidates with master’s degrees. The BLS and the ASCE’s Body of Knowledge also recommend graduate degrees.
Whatever their eventual path, students’ journeys begin with bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering or one of its specializations. Common options include the bachelor of science (BS) in engineering with a specialization in civil engineering (or another defined civil engineering specialty); a B.S. in civil engineering (BSCE); or a specialized BS (e.g., a BS in environmental science). Typical admissions requirements to bachelor’s programs in engineering include:
Bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering establish a solid foundation of mathematical and scientific principles used in the field of engineering, and may also include coursework in areas such as communication and information technology. Electives and specialized civil engineering coursework round out this base of core engineering and general education classes. Typical classes include:
As noted previously, master’s degrees are quickly becoming the entry-level standard of civil engineering employment. Much like bachelor’s degrees, civil engineering graduate degree paths include a master of science (MS) in civil engineering or an MS in a civil engineering specialty.
Unlike bachelor’s degrees, however, these programs are often much more specialized, targeting advanced engineering concepts. Students can pursue on-campus or online degrees in civil engineering. Online programs can be especially appealing to working professionals advancing their educations or satisfying continuing education requirements for credentialing (see below).
Graduate civil engineering program admissions requirements vary, but typically include the following:
Please note that some civil engineering graduate programs require applicants to answer supplemental questions or sit for interviews. Also, like bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees in civil engineering frequently offer specialty tracks. Real examples from Stanford University include:
Civil engineering master’s programs comprise core and specialized engineering courses and electives. The curriculum typically includes some variation of the following classes:
To become a credentialed civil engineer, most state and national licensing boards call for bachelor’s (or master’s) degrees plus varying levels of professional experience. The ASCE’s Engineers Guide to Pre-Licensure Experience advises new civil engineers to find internships, co-ops, and apprenticeships that reinforce the following skills and knowledge:
Most states require civil engineers to gain “Engineer in Training” (EIT) status before assuming internships, co-ops, apprenticeships, or other types of employment. The EIT designation confirms that recent graduates have mastered fundamental skills and principles through the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam is available in the following disciplines:
The NCEES offers an alternate, generalized exam called the FE-Other Disciplines. Readers can visit the Council online to review all options and eligibility requirements.
In addition to the EIT, there is a wide range of state, national, and board-issued credentialing available for civil engineers.
According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, all states regulate professional civil engineering standards. For example, most states require civil engineers to obtain licenses before assuming formal titles such as general engineering contractor, structural engineer, and erosion specialist, among others. The professional exam, licensing, and other civil engineering requirements vary by state and specialization. Students can learn more about the geographical standards and requirements through their state’s board of licensing. There’s a complete list of these available from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).
The Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) encourage all civil engineers to become licensed Professional Engineers (PEs). Most employers prefer (or require) candidates with PE licenses, which verify advanced knowledge and experience. Some tasks can only be completed by PEs. Even if not required, PEs usually enjoy better earnings, employment rates, and advancement potential.
PE Licensing Requirements
According to the NSPE, each state sets its unique PE eligibility criteria, but all require the following:
According to the NSPE, most states require PEs to meet certain continuing education standards to maintain their licenses. Many professional civil engineering organizations and the NSPE offer online continuing education courses, sometimes at no charge. Graduate civil engineering courses also count.
Professional and board certifications distinguish civil engineers who are highly knowledgeable in certain areas of interest. Professional organizations oversee many specialized civil engineering credentials. Construction engineers, for instance, might pursue professional certification from the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), while environmental engineers seek those offered by the Association of Environmental Professionals. Some of the other professional organizations offering specialized civil engineering certifications include:
Another popular and advanced civil engineering certification is available through the ASCE. These professionals can become certified in the following specializations:
Eligible candidates must have master’s degrees, PE licenses, and at least eight years of post-licensure engineering experience. ASCE certifications are overseen by Civil Engineering Certification, Inc. and accredited by Council of Engineering & Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB).
Finally, civil engineers are vital to public safety, industry, and progress, and their earnings and career prospects reflect this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), the average annual wage for civil engineers was $94,360 with the following percentiles:
United States (326,800 civil engineers employed)
Earnings vary substantially by education, advancement, certification, and experience, but usually grow with each. Geography can also impact one’s earnings.
Civil engineers are also in demand; the BLS (2019) projected their employment opportunities would swell 2 percent between 2019 and 2029, slower than the average growth anticipated across all U.S. occupations during that time (4 percent).
The BLS credits continued urbanization, population growth, and aging infrastructure for most of those gains, though an aging workforce certainly helps. An environmental push for renewable-energy projects, such as wind farms and solar arrays, also plays a significant role in this trend. Above all, employment prospects are best for candidates with graduate degrees, certifications, and professional licensure, as well as those acquainted with the ASCE’s Body of Knowledge.
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The cost of energy, the rise of illnesses related to pollution, and most importantly, climate change, have all prompted engineers to come up with sustainable ideas for development and innovation. These ideas range from the construction of residential and commercial buildings designed to be environmentally friendly to the development of new technologies for pollution control, waste disposal, or other public health concerns. Sustainable engineering uses current resources in an optimal manner so that it does not harmfully impact the environment, ensuring that present and future generations live in a safe and healthy world.