Civil Engineering

What is Civil Engineering

Civil engineers design, build, operate, and maintain structures and infrastructure that form the built environment of our modern society. The built environment include buildings, bridges, highways, water supply systems, environmental protection systems, ports, railroads, dams, flood control works, airports, and many others.

The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that civil engineers provide "a better world by design" because their projects improve the quality of life for mankind while being economically viable and environmentally conscious. This is the oldest branch of engineering, and will continue to be essential so long as civilization exists. Civil engineering is an exciting and rewarding profession.


Branches of Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is a very broad profession that encompasses a wide range of activities. The Civil Engineering Department at Cal Poly Pomona is divided into the following branches.

Gold Line, which connects Los Angeles with Pasadena (Photo courtesy of Kiewit Pacific)
Building the Gold Line of the Metro's light rail system
Construction engineers oversee the actual construction of civil engineering projects. They start with the design drawings and specifications prepared by design engineers, and convert them into a physical reality. Students interested in this branch of civil engineering can major in either civil engineering or construction engineering and management. Some students also choose to do a double-major.

Reviewing design drawings for an engineering project.
Construction management includes leading, coordinating, overseeing, and other similar management activities as applied to construction projects. Engineering managers typically have an undergraduate degree in engineering, with additional education or experience in management.

Sanitary landfills provide safe disposal of municipal wastes, thus protecting the environment.
The pipelines shown in the photo collect methane gas from the landfill, which is then used to generate electricity.

Environmental engineering focuses on engineering works that clean and protect the environment. These projects can include designing facilities to safely handle solid waste, industrial waste, or municipal wastewater. It also can include identifying and remediating existing pollution, such as underground contaminant plumes. It has been said that civil engineers have saved more lives than doctors, and much of this benefit has come from environmental engineering.

Using a surveying instrument to record topographic data in the field.
Geospatial engineering includes surveying, mapping, remote sensing, and other similar activities. Geospatial engineers use precise global positioning system (GPS) receivers and 3D scanners to establish horizontal and vertical coordinates. They also participate in the design and implementation of geographical information systems (GIS), which are geographically-based computer databases.

La Conchita
Geotechnical engineers work to prevent disasters like the 2005 La Conchita landslide that killed 10 people.
Geotechnical engineers focus on soil, rock, and underground water, and their relation to the design, construction, and operation of civil engineering projects. This work includes providing adequate foundations for structures, preventing or repairing landslides, identifying and remediating liquefaction hazards, and other similar activities.

Skyway Bridge
Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida is a cable-stayed bridge.
Structural engineers work on buildings, bridges, towers, and other structures. They are responsible for designing these structures in a way that will be safe, sustainable and economical. One of the most important aspects of structural engineering in California is earthquake-resistant design.

Maglev train
High-speed maglev trains are one solution to intercity travel.
Transportation engineers provide fast, efficient, and safe transportation facilities. These include highways, railroads, ports, airports, and other similar projects. Transportation facilities are essential to society, and improving our transportation infrastructure is a high priority for the coming decades, all of which requires civil engineers with expertise in transportation engineering.

Water Treatment
A water treatment plant purifies municipal water before it is distributed to the community.
Water resources engineering includes various civil engineering projects needed to provide safe drinking water and flood control works. These projects include aqueducts, pipelines, water treatment plants, dams, levees, and other similar works. Water is a very important topic in California, and water shortages will become an ever-growing concern as the state's population continues to grow. The implementation of desalinization plants, more efficient water usage, and new water distribution facilities are some of the solutions to these problems, all of which require civil engineers with expertise in water resources.

Where Do Civil Engineers Work?

Civil engineers work in a variety of different settings and for a wide range of employers. Many civil engineers also choose to be self-employed. Some civil engineering jobs are primarily indoors, but many involve frequent visits to project sites during both the design and construction phases.

Public sector employers include various public agencies, such as city building and safety departments, county public works departments, water agencies, Caltrans, and many others.

Private sector employers include small, medium, and large companies that provide civil engineering services. Some are primarily design-oriented, while others focus on construction.

Employment Outlook

There is a very strong demand for civil engineers, especially in California, and not enough new graduates to meet this demand. Most recent graduates receive multiple job offers. Resources to find employment can be found here.

How to Become a Civil Engineer

The best way to pursue a career in civil engineering, is to obtain a bachelor's degree in civil engineering or construction engineering from an ABET accredited program, such as Cal Poly Pomona. Civil engineers also need to become licensed by the state in which the project is located.

Although there are many excellent civil engineering jobs for those who do not go beyond the bachelor's degree, pursuing a master's degree opens more professional opportunities. In some branches of civil engineering, a master's degree is nearly essential. Over the next ten to twenty years, a master's degree might become a requirement in order to become professionally licensed.