What Do Civil Engineers Do?

Looking for a job where you can turn your big ideas into reality? Civil engineers get to do just that.
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Published on March 29, 2024
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Civil engineers plan, design, and build our physical environments. Every bridge you cross, every glass of clean water you drink, every skyscraper or hospital or school you've ever been in — civil engineers helped make it all possible.

Depending on their specialty, civil engineers might spend their days planning railways, designing hurricane-proof stadiums, engineering waterways and dams, or developing sustainable building technologies.

The work of many civil engineers increasingly focuses on sustainability and environmental impact. Through the Federal Buy Clean Initiative and other incentives, the U.S. government invests considerable resources into low-carbon construction materials, greener building practices, and water conservation efforts.

If you want a career where the things you imagine become real — and change the world for the better — consider getting a degree in civil engineering.

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What Is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is a branch of engineering that focuses on planning, building, and maintaining large infrastructure projects, including:

  • Buildings
  • Roads
  • Bridges
  • Tunnels
  • Airports
  • Water supply systems
  • Dams
  • Sewage systems
  • Facilities

Civil engineering plays a vital role in making our communities safe and functional.

"The field of civil engineering is rather broad and overlaps with other engineering disciplines such as environmental, architectural, and mechanical engineering," said research and development engineer Dr. Hagen Fritz.

"Studying any engineering discipline helps you become a competent and confident problem-solver. This skill is something that cannot be overstated."

Civil Engineering Salaries and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for civil engineers in 2022 was $89,940. The lowest 10% of earners took home less than $61,040 a year, while the highest 10% earned more than $138,690.

Government jobs at the federal level offered the highest median salaries for civil engineers in 2022.

Median Annual Salary by Industry (May 2022)

Federal Government

Local Government

State Government

Source: BLS

Additionally, the BLS projects that jobs for civil engineers will grow by 5% between 2022 and 2032, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer

The typical workday for a civil engineer can vary depending on their projects, specialization, and workplace. But here's a general overview of common tasks civil engineers undertake:

  • Project Planning: Civil engineers collaborate with colleagues, architects, and clients to establish goals, budgets, plans, and timelines.
  • Site Visits: Civil engineers may spend some of their time doing fieldwork to inspect construction progress and collaborate with construction teams.
  • Design Work: A lot of time is devoted to design tasks like creating blueprints and analyzing structures. Popular drafting software includes AutoCAD Civil3d and Building Information Modeling.
  • Paperwork: Documentation is a crucial part of the job. Civil engineers must keep accurate records of progress, alterations, and problems for each project.
  • Meetings: It's important to keep a project's stakeholders, including clients, government officials, and teammates, informed and up to date.
  • Problem-Solving: Civil engineers must manage unexpected challenges and engineer innovative solutions as problems arise.

"My biggest piece of advice for anyone interested in civil engineering is to research the roles and responsibilities of people working in the specific subdiscipline you are interested in," said Dr. Fritz. "I know I had preconceived notions about what someone in a certain discipline might do, but found over time that many of those notions were incorrect."

Civil Engineering Specializations

Civil engineering is a diverse field with a number of specializations to choose from. The table below breaks down some of the more common civil engineering specializations and subfields.


Construction engineering

Responsible for the planning, safety, and management of building projects

Environmental engineering

Applies scientific and engineering principles to environmental challenges like sustainability, public health, and resource conservation

Geotechnical engineering

Assesses the stability of earth materials like rock, soil, and groundwater to ensure the strength and durability of infrastructure projects

Structural engineering

Deals with the design and analysis of structures like buildings, bridges, dams, and towers to make sure they are functional and resilient

Transportation engineering

Engineers roads, highways, airports, railroads, and transit systems to make sure people and goods can move safely and efficiently

Hydraulic engineering

Manages the flow and function of waterways, sewers, dams, pipelines, irrigation systems, and flood control systems

Materials engineering

Focuses on materials and their use in various projects, as well as the development of new, better, more sustainable materials

Your life as a civil engineer in one subfield may look dramatically different from a role in another.

"For example — as a research and development engineer in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, my role is unique. I have the privilege of testing and working with new advancements and topics like artificial intelligence and robotics to see how these technologies could be integrated into the construction process," said Dr. Fritz.

Not every civil engineer will be working with AI (at least, not right away) — but every civil engineer will probably need programming skills to excel, regardless of their subfield.

"I would advise new engineers to become adept in some sort of programming language — these days, you will use a suite of software to accomplish the tasks you need to do as a civil engineer," said Dr. Fritz. "I wish I had spent more time honing those skills at an earlier stage."

Frequently Asked Questions About Civil Engineering

Where Do Civil Engineers Work?

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Civil engineers can work in the public sector (for federal, state, and local government agencies) or in the private sector (for construction, design, development, or consulting firms).

Is Civil Engineering a Good Career?

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Civil engineering is a rewarding career for many professionals. A 2022 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 85.2% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. A lot of that satisfaction comes from doing work that has a clear, positive impact on others.

Additionally, the field is projected to enjoy steady growth in the coming years and regularly pays annual salaries above $90,000.

Is It Hard to Be a Civil Engineer?

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Engineering jobs aren't known for being easy. Civil engineers report that deadlines can often be stressful, and each day working as a civil engineer comes with new problems to solve. But there is a lot of satisfaction that comes with designing cool stuff, developing new solutions, and making infrastructure that works.