What Does a Civil Engineer Do? Salaries, Responsibilities, and More

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A civil engineer is an engineer who plans and maintains infrastructure projects like airports, roads, dams, and stormwater drainage. Learn the basics of what your life can look like as a civil engineer.

[Featured image] A civil engineer consults with a construction manager at a job site.

A civil engineer helps build and maintain infrastructures such as roads, bridges, buildings, or water resources. They help get water, electricity, people, and goods from place to place by creating the networks and facilities needed to make transportation possible. 

Some civil engineers work for government agencies, while others work for consulting and construction firms that deal with private or government clients. 

What is a civil engineer?

A civil engineer is a type of engineer with expertise in the construction and operation of infrastructure. Civil engineers take part in construction projects like highways, railroads, and airports. Civil engineers may work in office settings in the planning phase of a project, and work on construction sites to oversee their implementation.

How much is a civil engineer's salary?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, civil engineering salaries start at $56,160 per year and go as high as $144,819, with an average of $88,670 [1]. Experience, location, and your level of education can affect salary range.

Types of civil engineers

Many civil engineers develop a specialty based on their interests and customer needs. Some may specialize in stormwater management. Others may handle road construction or seismic retrofitting, while others may specialize in airports or railroads. Civil engineers may be involved in creating the projects or operating them when they are completed.

Job titles associated with civil engineering include:

  • Civil design engineer

  • Civil engineer/project manager

  • Structural engineer

  • City engineer

  • Permitting and licensing engineer

How to become a civil engineer

Civil engineering requires knowledge of math, physics, chemistry, and other technical subjects. Entering the field requires at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and many civil engineers have master’s degrees or doctorates.

Some civil engineers come through the military, as infrastructure is important to getting troops from place to place. In the United States, many civilian infrastructure projects are managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which hires civilian engineers and trains soldiers in engineering principles.

Many civil engineers work for government agencies that may have their own hiring processes. These may include proof of citizenship and passing a civil service test.

Civil engineering skills you’ll need

Civil engineers have specialized skills that match the work they do and the clients that they serve.

Technical skills

Engineers should have a solid foundation in math, physics, and chemistry. These other skills can round out your readiness to be a civil engineer:

  • Specialty knowledge: Civil engineers need expertise in the materials with which they will be working. An engineer who builds dams will need to understand fluid mechanics, while one who builds roads will need to understand changing soil conditions. Some of these skills can be acquired on the job while others will require study. 

  • Civil engineering software: Civil engineers doing design work may want to have certification on engineering systems such as Autodesk. Being an Autodesk Certified Professional shows potential employers and clients that you have expertise with the systems you will be using to draft construction projects.

  • Project management: No matter what type of project you are working on, civil engineers need to understand project management. At the entry-level, being familiar with project management concepts will help you understand why projects are structured as they are. As you move up the ladder, you may do more work with project management concepts, eventually using them to direct projects from start to finish. Some engineers earn certification as a Project Management Professional to demonstrate their expertise.

Workplace skills

Key people skills civil engineers should have include:

  • Communication: Engineers who are good at managing people, relating to clients, and interacting with vendors will have a significant advantage in the workplace. 

  • Creativity and critical thinking: As an engineer, you’ll be developing solutions to the complexities of designing and creating bridges, roads, tunnels, and other infrastructure. The capacity to think through issues thoroughly and come up with ways to tackle construction hurdles will be good qualities to have.

  • Leadership and teamwork: Civil engineers will often supervise the construction of projects. Being able to relay information to a team and resolve issues that arise will be important.

  • Accountability: Much civil engineering work depends on being able to stick to budgets and follow regulations. The client relationship may include an obligation to hold hearings with members of the public about the work that is being done.

Paths to civil engineering

Earn a degree: A degree in civil engineering will prepare you with coursework in math, physics, and chemistry, and give you the chance to gain specialized knowledge in a field of civil engineering you might be interested in. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that having at least a bachelor’s degree is usually needed to become a civil engineer.

Get an internship: If you’re in school, a recent graduate, or looking to build up experience, consider taking on an internship at an engineering consulting firm or government agency. An internship is a great way to get hands-on experience for the job.

Know where to look: Job openings can be found at government agencies and at engineering and consulting firms. Civil engineers are in enough demand that many firms do on-campus recruiting. You can also network with trade organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Civil engineer career path

At the entry-level, many civil engineers work with more senior engineers to develop and complete projects. Entry-level engineers might help with quality control, oversee safety procedures, or assist in developing projects.

At more senior levels, a civil engineer might take on a more managerial role. This might include responding to requests for proposals or maintaining client relationships. Upper-level engineers may need certifications in project management or government contracting. 

Get started as a civil engineer

Being part of a team that makes sure buildings are seismically sound, designs bridges, or ensures the safety of water resources can be a rewarding way to contribute to society. Online courses can help prepare you for new opportunities and keep your knowledge current in an ever-changing technical field. You can study for the Autodesk Certified Professional exam or try out an engineering class on Coursera.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Civil Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/civil-engineers.htm." Accessed March 22, 2022.

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