Environmental Engineering Responsibilities - What Do They Do?

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Environmental engineers help identify and develop solutions to environmental problems in order to protect the population from harm or enhance people’s quality of life. An environmental engineer may assist with a project aimed at improving a recycling process in a nearby municipality or may work with an organization to monitor levels of air pollution and take necessary action.

Those interested in environmental engineering might consider how to create sustainable buildings, or how contaminated waste sites are cleaned up. To pursue this profession, prospective environmental engineers will need to complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental, civil, mechanical, or chemical engineering. In addition, because environmental engineers often work in teams to complete large-scale processes or projects, they must have the ability to work well with others.

Read on to learn more about this profession, including specializations, common employers, day-to-day tasks, and typical environmental engineer work environments.

Environmental Engineer Job Overview

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), environmental engineers consider the earth’s natural resources while applying physical, biological, and chemical principles to address local, regional, and global environmental issues. Depending on their specialization, environmental engineers may work on any of the following projects throughout their careers:

  • Air and water pollution monitoring and mitigation
  • Creation and maintenance of recycling and waste disposal methods
  • Development and maintenance of efficient fuel methods

This is only a small sample of the type of work available to an environmental engineer. Engineers in this industry may expect to work on any project that is aimed at protecting the environment and developing ways to make life better for the global community.

Environmental Engineer Specializations

Like many other fields of engineering, environmental engineering includes a variety of specializations, which are described in detail below. Anyone interested in a career in environmental engineering will benefit from exploring the full range of options available in this dynamic field:

Coastal Engineering

Coastal engineering involves aspects of civil engineering and focuses on risks and demands posed by any development along a coastline. A coastal engineer may work for a public or federal agency or a private organization and may be responsible for monitoring the effects of wave activity, any detriment to coastal flora and fauna, and anything else related to the shore.

  • Old Dominion University offers an online graduate certificate in coastal engineering. This certificate is offered through the Batten College of Engineering and Technology and can be earned by completing just four courses. They are an introduction to coastal engineering, dredging and beach engineering, coastal hydrodynamics and sediment processes, and design of coastal structures. Tuition is $595 per credit, and classes completed for this certificate can be applied towards a Master of Science in Civil Engineering with a focus in Coastal Engineering should students pursue further education.

Geophysical Engineering

This specialty of environmental engineering generally examines the methods involved in extracting various resources from the earth, including minerals, gases, and oil. A geophysical engineer may find employment with a private oil company or mine and may help develop safer and/or more efficient methods of extraction.

  • The College of Engineering at the University of Idaho offers an online master’s of science in geological engineering. Students in this program learn the construction and design of mining projects, how to mitigate geological hazards caused by humans, and how to utilize mineral and energy sources. This 30 semester credit hour program can be completed through distance learning at a student’s own pace. To be eligible for admission, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related field.

Water Resources Engineering

Water resources engineering focuses on the creation of new equipment for managing water resources. A water resources engineer may work on projects related to wells, natural springs, and water treatment plants or related facilities.

  • Students can complete an online master’s of environmental engineering with a specialization in environmental, water resources, and coastal engineering through North Carolina State University’s College of Engineering. Courses in water resource engineering help students gain a keen understanding of surface waters, hydrodynamics, and the biological and chemical processes of water. There are core, elective, and technical class recommendations for students to achieve the most in-depth education. These classes include hydraulics of groundwater, engineering hydrology, and hydroclimatology.

Ocean Engineering

Although related to coastal engineering, ocean engineering more specifically focuses on the ocean environment and acts as a connecting piece between various other sciences, including marine biology and oceanography, among others.

  • The ocean and coastal engineering focus area for the master’s of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering prepares graduates for work with the world’s oceans. Recommended classes for this specialization include marine geotechnical engineering, design of ocean structures, port & harbor engineering, and sustainable coastal engineering. Since this program is offered online, students can complete their coursework without having to relocate. Classes are offered both as live classes and recorded lectures.

Ecological Engineering

A relatively new field of engineering, ecological engineering emphasizes the construction, design, and monitoring of various ecosystems. One of the main goals of ecological engineering is to help the human population better integrate with its surrounding ecosystems.

  • Since this field is so new, there are currently no online degree programs in ecological engineering. However, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers free ecology classes through their OpenCourseWare project. These courses are both at the graduate and undergraduate level and include lectures, notes, assignments, and exams. In addition to classes in ecology, there are numerous other environmental engineering classes available.

Common Employers of Environmental Engineers

Environmental engineers may find employment with various public and private organizations. According to the BLS (2021), federal, state, and local governments, as well as utility companies are in need of environmental engineers to help comply with environmental regulations. For instance, environmental engineers may find themselves working for municipal governments, assisting in projects aimed at improving a specific system or method within a town or city.

Private companies constructing alongside the coast or extracting oil or other natural resources from the ground might also employ environmental engineers as consultants. In addition, engineers may also find employment within federal agencies looking to improve existing technology to monitor air or water quality.

Furthermore, environmental engineers may work either independently or on a team alongside other engineers within an organization. Often, those who obtain a master’s degree, or who are licensed or Board Certified Environmental Engineers, might serve as consultants or in managerial roles.

Day-to-Day Tasks for an Environmental Engineer

The day-to-day tasks of an environmental engineer depend entirely on the type of work and industry in which the individual is employed. For example, an engineer monitoring a system aimed at treating water or processing waste or recycling may spend a large portion of time at the specific site alongside other professionals who maintain the system.

At other times, an environmental engineer who is responsible for the development of a coastline may spend time in a planning office with other members of the team who are working on the project. Engineers who have completed a study on the efficiency of a new method of resource extraction may make presentations to others in the industry at seminars.

The following are typical responsibilities environmental engineers might encounter at a global engineer firm, paper and packaging firm, and defense technology company:

Coastal engineer for a global engineering firm

  • Design projects with a focus on coastal areas and ports
  • Develop data collection plans for surveying, geotechnical exploration, and other environmental data analyses
  • Perform engineering analysis of coastal and marine facilities
  • Periodic construction oversight

Environmental engineer at a paper and packaging firm

  • Assist staff in regulatory and compliance-related tasks, including audits
  • Develop competency in government rules, regulations, and technologies related to paper mill environmental processes
  • Assist with environmental record keeping
  • Participate on various mill committees and groups to review air quality, water quality, solid/hazardous materials, or other compliance-related issues

Marine engineer at a defense technology company

  • Write proposals and interface with customers
  • Perform trade studies
  • Lead design teams
  • Perform system-level modeling and analysis

The responsibilities of environmental engineers are the backbone of urban and technological developments. Their ability to bridge the needs of humanity with respect for available natural resources is the foundation of making the world a better place for all.

Environmental Engineer Work Environment

At some point in their careers, environmental engineers may work in an office alongside other team members. In addition, many environmental engineers are required to travel to specific locations, including water treatment facilities or waste disposal plants, where they may monitor the systems and create reports or make recommendations. Those engineers who have completed studies related to their industry may present this information to various groups or organizations.

For instance, the role of a coastal engineer of a state government may be to work on a project to help protect nearby structures from destruction and/or erosion. This engineer may spend time in an office or laboratory setting, designing and planning a model to implement, such as a dike or seawall.

Upon completion of the design, the environmental engineer may oversee its successful implementation on the shoreline. Subsequently, the engineer would likely be required to monitor the implemented structure, which may involve improving the existing structure, or replacing it altogether.

Those interested in a career in environmental engineering will most likely have the opportunity to work in an office and/or at on-site locations. Ultimately, environmental engineers may find themselves in positions to help change the world by ensuring a sustainable global community and planet.

Environmental Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, there are 53,070 environmental engineers employed across the US. Currently, there will be an estimated 3 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2019 and 2029. This translates into 1,700 new jobs in this field in the next decade. Demand for environmental engineers is primarily in government services, although many are employed by private engineering companies as well.

Wages for environmental engineers vary based on work experience, level of education completed, employer, and location. Those working for large private corporations in metropolitan areas tend to earn more than those employed by smaller companies or government agencies or who work in rural areas. The average salary for an environmental engineer is $96,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2020). The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $55,450
  • 25th percentile: $70,260
  • 50th percentile (median): $92,120
  • 75th percentile: $118,960
  • 90th percentile: $144,670

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