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How to Become a Construction Engineer
The engineering world is divided into four main fields or “disciplines,” each with its own set of sub-disciplines or specializations. Electrical engineers design and build things that are electrical and electronic, while _mechanica_l engineers design, refine and build machines of different types. _Chemica_l engineers, as the name suggests, deal with chemicals and chemistry.
The fourth discipline is civil engineering. Civil engineers play a role in building or designing just about everything that isn’t covered by one of the other three disciplines, from massive public work_s projects to mining, _sewer systems or even renewable energy.
Construction engineering is one of the specialized sub-disciplines within civil engineering. Its focus is building in the traditional sense, on a residential, commercial or industrial construction basis, or in massive infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, sewer systems or dams. As a field, construction engineering is diverse enough to offer career paths to fit almost any combination of aptitude and ambition.
Start Planning in High School
If you’re drawn to construction engineering as a career from an early age, you can begin laying the groundwork by choosing appropriate courses in school. Subjects needed for civil engineering in high school begin with math and the sciences, since those are the foundations of engineering.
You’ll need to take advanced math and science courses to impress the admissions department at your chosen university, so get the prerequisite courses out of the way early. Not only does that free your time to take advanced courses over the next few years, but you’ll also have extra time to address any areas of weakness you might discover. Computer and coding skills are potentially useful on the job, and so are languages. You can even sign up for summer engineering camps, if you wish.
Don’t focus too tightly on your career path, though. Use your electives to explore other things that interest you, even if they’re unrelated to construction. Problem-solving is a big part of engineering, and having a broad range of intellectual interests gives you more scope for “thinking outside the box.”
Construction engineering is about managing people and materials to best advantage, so you’ll also want to build and demonstrate your organizational and leadership skills while you’re in school. That might mean participating in team sports, organizing events or lending your assistance to community organizations.
Civil Engineering Degree Requirements
To become an engineer, you’ll need to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree from a college accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
Some schools offer programs explicitly for construction engineering, while others provide degrees in civil engineering and allow students to zero in on construction or other areas of specialization through their choice of courses. A typical degree program incorporates lab work and fieldwork along with classroom time, and schools often work closely with employers to create co-op placements for their engineering students.
Your courses will include a variety of science and mathematics subjects, as well as introductions to key aspects of engineering and construction such as soil mechanics or design principles for reinforced concrete. Most programs also include a requirement for humanities courses such as English composition, history or political science, partly to provide a well-rounded education and partly because they teach important communication and critical-thinking skills.
Much of a construction engineer’s work is in management and oversight, especially if you launch your own company or choose a project management track, so business and management courses can be especially useful electives. In total, you’ll need 130 semester hours of instruction to meet the requirements for licensing as a professional engineer, and accredited programs will all meet or exceed that number.
Certification Path After Graduation
Earning your degree in engineering is just the first step on your career path. You can work in construction with that degree alone, but without certification as a Professional Engineer, or PE, your options are limited. Without certification, you’ll be unable to sign off on design drawings, bid for government jobs, or act as the principal of your own engineering firm.
The path to certification starts with the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, which you can take before or after graduation. It’s offered four times per year, and it takes six hours to complete. You can take the test just once during each of the four exam “windows” and up to three times in a given 12-month period if you don’t achieve a passing score on the first effort.
After passing, you’ll be certified as an intern or engineer in training, and you’ll be eligible to work for engineering firms. Typically, you’ll need to complete four years of engineering work under the supervision of a licensed PE to gain practical experience in your chosen field. Licensure requirements vary among the states, so you’ll need to check with your own state’s licensing board to be sure your plan for those first few years covers all of the necessary points.
Finally, you must take and pass the PE exam, which is offered in April and October. It consists of 80 questions, divided into morning and afternoon segments totaling eight hours. In the morning, you’ll do the general civil engineering portion of the exam, and in the afternoon, you’ll complete the portion that’s specifically for the construction specialty. You’ll get your test results by mail from your state licensing board, or you can receive them online if you have set up a MyNCEES account.
Once you’ve passed the PE exam and met any other state-specific requirements, you’ll receive your license and be a full-fledged Professional Engineer. Your journey doesn’t end there, though. Your license will need to be renewed regularly, and you’ll need to complete continuing education requirements during each renewal period to remain in good standing.
Potential Career Paths
As a licensed PE, you can pursue any number of career paths. They all have their pros and cons, so ideally, you’ll use your co-op placements during school and your work experience after graduation to get a feel for which options are a good fit for your abilities and career goals.
If you have an entrepreneurial streak, for example, you might launch your own construction or engineering firm. This is the highest-risk option, though the payback can be huge as well. You’ll need to develop contacts, both with potential clients and sub-contractors, and nurture those relationships over the long term.
If you prize security, taking a government position might make sense. Public works and infrastructure require a lot of engineering talent, and government jobs often offer excellent benefits.
Engineering firms, large and small, offer salaried positions with a range of perks and job responsibilities. Some focus on finding work in their immediate areas, so their engineers won’t have to travel much. Others are the opposite, seeking out overseas and offshore positions offering higher rates of pay. All of these, and many more, are viable career paths to consider.
Civil Engineering Salary and Job Prospects
For a career requiring only a four-year degree, salaries among engineers are often surprisingly substantial. In its May 2018 figures, the Bureau of Labor Statistics places the average earnings for civil engineers at $93,720 and the median at $86,640. The top 10 percent of civil engineers reported earnings of $142,560 or above.
In the same year, the top-paying states for civil engineers were Alaska, California, New Jersey, Texas and New York. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from remoteness to the high cost of living to large concentrations of lucrative oil-industry positions. Bear in mind that these factors can make any given state less appealing relative to the salary you earn, so do your research before committing to a position.
As for growth in the field, the 2020 BLS projections called for 8 percent job growth, about the same as for all occupations. Some specialties may see significantly higher growth, however. Engineering-heavy industries such as oil and gas move through “boom” cycles, and various levels of government launch infrastructure programs.
- What is Engineering: What is Civil Engineering
- What is Engineering: What is Construction Engineering
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Civil Engineers
- STEM Study: High Schooler's Guide to Preparing For an Engineering College
- Engineering Education Service Center: Engineering Summer Camps
- Georgia Southern University: Civil Engineering and Construction
- Georgia Southern University: Civil Engineering Four-Year Curriculum Plan
- Florida Board of Professional Engineers: Why Become a Licensed Engineer?
- National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying: NCEES Civil Breadth and Consruction Depth Exam Specifications
- National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying: Civil PE Exam
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics: Civil Engineers
- Degrees specifically in the field of construction engineering are relatively rare. Candidates can also pursue a Bachelor of Science degree and combine it with relevant construction experience to advance professionally.
Fred Decker is a prolific freelance writer based in Atlantic Canada. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Aside from CareerTrend, he's written career-related information for TheNest.com and the website of the Houston Chronicle.