What Is Civil Engineering?

Bridge construction, civil engineering
Civil engineers design and build infrastructure projects, such as bridges and dams. (Image credit: Robert Cernohlavek | Shutterstock)

Civil engineering is the design and construction of public works, such as dams, bridges and other large infrastructure projects. It is one of the oldest branches of engineering, dating back to when people first started living in permanent settlements and began shaping their environments to suit their needs. 

Early engineers built walls, roads, bridges, dams and levees; they dug wells, irrigation ditches and trenches. As larger groups of people began living together in towns and cities, these populations needed reliable sources of clean water, the means to dispose of waste, a network of streets and roadways for commerce and trade, and a way to defend themselves against hostile neighbors. 

Ancient civil engineering projects include the roads of the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and Mayan ruins at Copan, Palenque and Tikal. Many early civilizations built monuments to their rulers or gods. These may have been simple mounds or truly remarkable achievements, such as the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, whose construction by pre-industrial societies remains mysterious. The names of the engineers who designed these wonders are lost to antiquity. 

Today, the public is more likely to remember the names of great civil engineering projects than the names of the engineers who designed and built them. These include the Brooklyn Bridge (designed by John August Roebling and son Washington Roebling), the Hoover Dam (John L. Savage), the Panama Canal (John Frank Stevens) and the Golden Gate Bridge (Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis). One notable exception is the Eiffel Tower, named after Gustave Eiffel, the French civil engineer whose company built it. 

What does a civil engineer do?

Civil engineers "design, construct, supervise, operate and maintain large construction projects and systems, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment," according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

These engineers may also handle site preparation activities, such as excavation, earth moving and grading for large construction projects. Additionally, civil engineers may conduct or write the specifications for destructive or nondestructive testing of the performance, reliability and long-term durability of materials and structures. 

Here are some recent and ongoing civil engineering projects of note:

  • A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted tests to see how well buildings made of cold-formed steel can withstand earthquakes. 
  • Engineers at the University of Maryland are working on smart bridges that can send out warnings when they are in danger of collapsing.
  • In Los Angeles, civil engineers who are experts in structural monitoring helped art conservators preserve the iconic Watts Towers monument.

What a civil engineer needs to know

Today's civil engineers need in-depth understanding of physics, mathematics, geology and hydrology. They must also know the properties of a wide range of construction materials, such as concrete and structural steel, and the types and capabilities of construction machinery. With this knowledge, engineers can design structures that meet requirements for cost, safety, reliability, durability and energy efficiency. Civil engineers also need a working knowledge of structural and mechanical engineering

These engineers can be involved in nearly every stage of a major construction project. That can include site selection, writing specifications for processes and materials, reviewing bids from subcontractors, ensuring compliance with building codes, and supervising all phases of construction from grading and earth moving to painting and finishing. 

More and more, civil engineers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) systems; therefore, proficiency with computers is essential. In addition to speeding up the drafting process for civil engineering projects, CAD systems make it easy to modify designs and generate working blueprints for construction crews. A comprehensive list of necessary skills and abilities for civil engineers can be found at MyMajors.com

Civil engineering jobs & salary

The BLS states, "Civil engineers generally work indoors in offices. However, many spend time outdoors at construction sites so they can monitor operations or solve problems onsite." Most civil engineers employed in the private sector work for large construction contractors or as consultants. Government institutions that employ civil engineers include state transportation departments and the military. 

Most civil engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in engineering. Many employers, particularly those that offer engineering consulting services, also require state certification as a professional engineer. Additionally, many employers require certification from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). A master's degree is often required for promotion to management, and ongoing education and training are needed to keep up with advances in technology, equipment, computer hardware and software, building codes, and other government regulations. 

According to Salary.com, as of July 2014, the salary range for a newly graduated civil engineer with a bachelor's degree is $55,570 to $73,908. The range for a mid-level engineer with a master's degree and five to 10 years of experience is $74,007 to $108,640, and the range for a senior engineer with a master's degree or doctorate and over 15 years of experience is $97,434 to $138,296. Many experienced engineers with advanced degrees are promoted to management positions or start their own businesses where they can earn even more. 

The future of civil engineering

Employment of civil engineers is projected to grow 20 percent from now to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS. "As infrastructure continues to age, civil engineers will be needed to manage projects to rebuild bridges, repair roads, and upgrade levees and dams," the BLS said. There should be many opportunities for qualified applicants, particularly those who have kept abreast of the latest developments in technology and regulations. Having good grades from a highly rated institution should give a job seeker an advantage over the competition. 

Additional resources

Jim Lucas
Live Science Contributor
Jim Lucas is a contributing writer for Live Science. He covers physics, astronomy and engineering. Jim graduated from Missouri State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics with minors in astronomy and technical writing. After graduation he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a network systems administrator, a technical writer-editor and a nuclear security specialist. In addition to writing, he edits scientific journal articles in a variety of topical areas.