What Is Civil Engineering and What Do Civil Engineers Do?
Civil Engineering is a very broad career field. Disciplines within Civil Engineering include transportation, structural, environmental, geotechnical, traffic, utilities, and more. In short, Civil Engineers solve problems and work to make the world a better place through the built environment.
Civil Engineers design and manage the construction and maintenance of the built environment. Whether involving bridges, roadways, buildings, utilities, rivers and streams, dams and water supply, or other aspects of the built environment, Civil Engineers have a significant role. Public safety and stewardship are two of the most important facets of Civil Engineering.
Public sector Civil Engineers work for government organizations at the federal, state, or local level, and may also include tribal governments and the military. Quasi-governmental organizations such as metropolitan planning organizations may also employ civil engineers.
Private sector Civil Engineers usually work for engineering firms but may also work for land development companies or private utility companies. Employers may also include organizations such as universities or large corporations that have infrastructure assets they manage.
Public sector Civil Engineers usually manage the design, construction, and maintenance of roads, bridges, and government-operated utilities. Work may also include review of proposed building developments in their jurisdiction. Often, this work falls into a project management role, where the government agency will hire design engineering firms to perform engineering design and construction firms to build or maintain the improvements. Sometimes public sector Engineers will perform the design themselves. Because of the project management nature, engineers spend a lot of time managing and reviewing budgets, schedules, construction documents (plans and specifications), local design guidelines, federal or state requirements and contract documents. It is common for public sector Civil Engineers to be working on several projects at once and working with different teams on each project. Although many project management roles can be performed by non-engineers, it is important to have a strong working knowledge of engineering best practices for the proper review of design and construction documents.
Private sector Civil Engineers usually work for engineering firms ranging from small, local firms to large, global firms. These firms provide services ranging from performing studies, developing designs, or managing construction. Two common clients of these firms are government agencies or private developers. Firms are often hired on a project-specific basis to perform engineering services but may be retained for services on an as-needed basis. The firm will staff a project with the engineering and non-engineering people needed to successfully deliver the project, often including design engineers, project managers, environmental scientists, architects, landscape architects, inspectors and material testers. Private sector engineers are often working on several projects at once and working with different teams at the same time. In recent months, it has become more common to be working on teams spread across the country or globe.
For a Civil Engineer working at a city government, a typical workload may include two or three roadway improvement projects being designed, bridge inventory asset management, and one or two roadway projects in construction. The design projects will involve meetings with design consultants to get project updates and direct the consultants on design decisions, managing the project budget to ensure delivery within the money available, and managing the schedule to ensure construction happens on the project schedule. Managing the bridge inventory may involve working with engineering consultants to inspect the condition of each bridge on a regular basis, determine which bridges need repair or replacement in the short and long-term future, and hire contractors to repair or replace bridges. Construction project management may involve hiring a construction contractor to perform the work within a certain budget, monitoring construction activities to ensure the road is built to engineering standards, public outreach to make sure residents are informed of construction and how it will impact their lives, and coordination with funding partners and other stakeholders, such as state Departments of Transportation, the federal government, businesses, and utility companies.
Civil Engineering is an exciting and rewarding profession. It is a broad discipline which focuses on improving the world around us. Civil Engineers are involved in the creation of things we often take for granted. Next time you drive on a road, drink a glass of clean water, or walk into a building, be grateful for the Civil Engineers who made it possible.