What Does a Civil Engineer Do? (+ How to Become One)

Written by Coursera Staff • 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. You can learn more about civil engineers and how to become one in the following article.

What do civil engineers do?

A civil engineer is an engineer with expertise in infrastructure construction and operation. Civil engineers participate in construction projects like highways, railroads, and airports.

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 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:

  • Transportation engineer

  • Public works engineer

  • Environmental engineer

  • Bridge engineer

  • Structural engineer

How much is a civil engineer's salary?

According to Glassdoor, civil engineering salaries in Canada start at $63,000 per year and go as high as $97,014, with an average base salary of $78,014 [1]. Keep in mind that experience, location, and level of education can affect your salary range as a civil 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. Provinces and territories may require licensing by a professional engineering association for some positions.

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 they will be working with. 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 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 use to draft construction projects. You can prepare for an Autodesk Certification Exam with the following online course:

  • Project management: Civil engineers need to understand project management no matter what type of project you are working on. 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 work more with project management concepts, eventually using them to direct projects from start to finish. Consider Google’s Project Management Professional Certificate to learn project management skills.

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 develop ways to tackle construction hurdles is a good quality 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 Canadian government reports that having at least a bachelor’s degree is required 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 in government agencies, engineering consulting firms, and construction companies. You can also network with trade organizations such as the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering.

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 can 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, such as Introduction to Engineering Mechanics through Georgia Tech.

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