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Civil Engineer

The Real Poop

Giles Montford, Civil Engineer Emeritus (and with five or six acronyms behind his name), sipped the last of his green tea from his Spode china teacup. Visibly irritated that the teapot was empty, Giles rang the small silver bell on his varnished mahogany desk. Peter, his longtime valet who was used to Giles' overbearing manner and sense of superiority, whisked the teapot away without a word.

Peter quickly returned with a fresh pot of steaming green tea, the Financial Times tucked beneath his arm, and Giles' appointment schedule for the day. Of course, Giles had no intention of doing any real work; he had a small force of minions for that. As the chief Civil Engineer, Giles' task was to hold court in his spacious office, waiting for reports and issuing directives. He was indeed the epitome of the Peter Principle.

Wouldn't it be great if all civil engineering jobs were like this? Hate to break it to you, but most civil engineers actually do something besides guzzle green tea all day. Speaking generally, when you see a building, visit a museum, fly out of an airport, or drive across a dam, a civil engineer had a major hand in that project. Although civil engineers spend much of their time reviewing reports and designing buildings and infrastructure, they also get their shoes dirty on the construction site (except for Giles, of course).

To see a civil engineer in action, let's follow an office building project from beginning to end (with all of the rain delays and building materials snafus deleted, of course). First, Chris, a third-year civil engineer with a private consulting firm, meets with the commercial developer who wants to construct the office building. Chris gets all the preliminary specs, and then researches the building site so he won't have any surprises later. He reviews government regulations that may affect the site planning and construction process.

Next, Chris looks for a past history of environmental hazards, such as a toxic dump located on or near the construction site. He also performs a soil test to see how the underlying ground will affect the foundation. If the developer wants to construct the office building on marsh muck, for example, Chris will have to recommend some changes to the foundation to compensate for that spongy terrain. He'll also see if the developer's choice of building materials is appropriate, or if a different combination of materials should be used.

Chris must also use local maps and land survey reports to view the site's geography, elevations, and slope grades. If he can't find any recent surveys, he'll have to perform the surveys himself. Good news alert here: Chances are Chris can get one of his firm's civil engineering technicians to do the actual survey grunt work. Chris can analyze the survey data and proceed from there. If the survey results don't raise any red flags, Chris can prepare project cost estimates that will help the developer determine if his project makes economic sense…or if it's a pie-in-the-sky money pit.

But wait, there's more! Let's say we've sailed through the whole research and survey process, and our office building mogul is ready to begin construction...except for one tiny detail. Chris has completed an environmental impact statement that shows a nearby marsh could be affected by the office building's construction. He must present his findings to the public during a larger project hearing, and see how the dice rolls from there. On some projects, he might also present findings on bid proposal results or property analyses.

However, Chris isn't off the hook just yet. He must monitor the office building's construction to ensure nothing changes the design and construction equation. If a snafu happens, he may have to reassess the project parameters and make changes accordingly. In some cases, he may halt construction until a specific crisis is resolved. This means he must be on the job site regardless of the weather. It also means he might be working long hours...and that could mean his dinner date is off.

Okay, that process covers building construction. However, you might be surprised to learn that civil engineers develop their own special technology niches, becoming experts in one of several project disciplines. For example, a geotechnical engineer is concerned about how well building foundations, tunnels, and other structures co-exist with the surrounding earth. Geotechnical engineers also design retaining walls and slopes.

Transportation engineers design highways and streets, of course; however, they also scope out ports, airports, and harbors. Structural engineers plan and monitor the strength of huge projects such as dams and bridges. These guys really have to be on top of their games, as the consequences of doing otherwise can be truly disastrous.

Now that we know what civil engineers do, you may wonder who employs them. Good question. In 2010, civil engineers held a tad more than 260,000 United States jobs. Architectural and engineering services firms employed almost half of all civil engineers in the United States. State and local governments together employed almost 25 percent. Nonresidential building construction and the federal government come in dead last with 5 percent each. However, here's one perk for federally employed civil engineers: While they perform many of the same functions as privately employed civil engineers—the federal workers can also inspect projects for regulation compliance (talk about a nice power trip!).

You're probably also wondering how you can get one of those cushy administrative, teaching, or research jobs...you know, the ones that don't involve trudging through biting January cold to get to a remote construction site. We can'really answer that, although those jobs do exist. You might also get a city engineer or construction site supervisor gig, which might keep you warm at least some of the time. Finally, if you want to see the world, note that some civil engineers find firms that land international contracts. You just might get the chance to travel and get paid for it.

At this point, it's helpful to evaluate your own personality straits and strengths, and decide if you're a good fit for a civil engineering career. First, you must have high-level problem-solving skills; you'll be designing and planning big-dollar projects such as airports, roads, and tunnels. You'll also need trig, calculus, statistics, and other advanced math applications to perform your work. You can't be afraid to make decisions; however, you must balance costs, safety concerns, and plan feasibility before you choose your path. You must have an almost anal-retentive attention to detail, as the smallest change in dimensions or a transposed number can lead to potential disaster.

You should be able to play well with others (that means leading other team members such as construction managers and surveyors). Of course, you must be able to enjoy working independently as well. Note that a licensed civil engineer is the only professional who can sign off on infrastructure project plans. What does this mean? It means you have to visit the job site regularly to monitor the project's progress; that probably rules out those daily trips to the video arcade. Finally, you must be able to write your findings and recommendations in clear English any team member can understand; it's not appropriate to write in engineering-speak.

Finally, let's consider that you really enjoy planning big projects and juggling complex "what if" scenarios. However, for some reason a civil engineering career just doesn't float your boat. If you enjoy being outdoors, and think it's great that your precision measurements serve as the foundation for really big projects, a surveying career might be a good fit.

Perhaps you could get really jazzed about working as an architect...designing funky buildings for eccentric clients with money. On a larger scale, an urban or regional planning career might interest you, as you could help design entire communities. Finally, maybe you enjoy the design process, and love the great outdoors, but would much rather work with greenery than buildings. A landscape architect career would allow you to liven up homes and commercial buildings with a carefully designed mix of trees, gardens, and water features. Think waterfalls, ponds, and fountains...and dive right in.

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