What civil engineers do
Civil engineering is one of the oldest professions. As far back as the Great Pyramids at Giza, brilliant engineering minds have been thinking up ways to design and build mind-blowing structures. Today, the only thing that has changed is what they create. With new, lighter and stronger materials to work with, and greater challenges to be met, there is no limit to what civil engineers can achieve. They build towers, bridges, roads, railways and tunnels; airports and mines; dams, ports and harbours; water supplies and sewerage schemes; and irrigation systems and flood mitigation works. In fact, any infrastructure that’s required to run our modern society needs the input of civil engineers along the way.
The profession is very broad, with opportunities for a specialised career, including:
- construction engineers and managers
- geotechnical engineers
- structural engineers
- transport engineers
- water engineers
- civil engineers with architecture
Construction engineers and managers, engineering managers, project managers and asset managers are responsible for essentially all decision making regarding expenditure related to infrastructure. The work is extremely motivating and rewarding as construction engineers see infrastructure unfolding from nothing to become completed assets, such as bridges and buildings, which will serve society for many years.
Construction projects can be extremely large, as in the oil and gas industries; medium, as in building bridges; or small, as in small commercial office and residential construction. Construction engineers can work in large teams or medium-sized teams in the public or private sector, or be sole practitioners. They are able to choose the type of work that suits their interests, often moving on to senior business roles in construction companies.
Construction engineering and management skills are internationally recognised.
Construction engineers must understand relevant construction technology, as well as having managerial skills, such as costing, contracts, planning and risk. Construction engineers are problem solvers and innovators. They typically work in offices located wherever the construction is taking place, in cities, regional towns and overseas.
Infrastructure projects may take several years to complete and when they are finished, construction engineers can transfer to another project, while progressing their careers, or they might remain with the project as a project or asset manager or, more generally, as engineering managers. Their skill set includes financial and economic appraisal and managing life cycle costs, risk, people, contracts and planning.
Construction engineering and management is crucial in providing the infrastructure on which society depends.
Geotechnical engineers deal with many types of infrastructure – tunnels, bridges, dams, buildings, roads, railways, ports and landfills – that are built on or in the ground.
Geotechnical engineers have to produce designs for infrastructure that are safe and serve the required purpose – during the construction phase, as well as a long time into the future.
Geotechnical engineers gather the information needed for their designs and analyses from site investigations which can be in urban areas or remote areas, depending on where the infrastructure has to be built.
Geotechnical engineers also study landslides and earthquakes, and ways of preventing future landslides from occurring and ways of making infrastructure earthquake resistant.
Geotechnical engineers tend to be practical people who are good at using mathematics and mechanics and who enjoy working outside, as well as in an office environment.
Structural engineers use their creativity and scientific training to develop and maintain new and existing structures and incorporate advanced materials.
- develop structural solutions to resist loads and other forces
- devise ways to provide safe load paths for these forces.
Designing a society’s infrastructure presents enormous challenges, creatively and intellectually. This is a fascinating career for those interested in building, mechanics and mathematics and who would enjoy working in teams with other engineering disciplines, architects, contractors and builders.
Transport engineers apply their maths skills and interests in strategic planning and decision making to provide innovate engineering solutions for problems that affect people in their daily lives.
Transport engineers work in government departments and organisations, planning agencies, private firms and financial institutes – providing technical and managerial support to a wide diversity of transport projects.
To safeguard Australia’s water future, water engineers need a long-term and holistic perspective of water from catchment to ocean and innovative approaches to all aspects of the water cycle.
Water engineers design and operate dams to ensure that we have enough water during dry times and that water is allocated fairly and efficiently to all users. This includes designing efficient irrigation schemes to try to minimise the loss of water through evaporation, which is a big problem in a dry continent like Australia.
Water engineers model the rainfall and flow in catchments. They work with local communities, governments and emergency services to predict flooding and ensure that development in floodplains is safe and appropriate. Water engineers also design stormwater systems that can prevent flooding. Exciting developments in this area include Water Sensitive Urban Design which complements traditional stormwater pipes with natural water features, such as wetlands.
Groundwater is an important resource for much of Australia, but its location makes it difficult to study. Water engineers must come up with innovative ways to track and quantify the water in this precious resource.
This type of water engineering studies the behaviour of the ocean and how it interacts with the coastal land, including understanding coastal erosion and designing ways to protect beaches and properties. Coastal engineering includes designing beach nourishment programs and breakwalls that ensure safe navigation of boats into harbours and estuaries. Estuaries, where rivers meet the ocean, are a fascinating area to study as the mixing of saltwater and freshwater leads to unique habitats for vegetation and wildlife. Water engineers try to understand how estuaries behave and can help to restore them when development has caused them to become out of balance.
Water quality requirements depend on the intended use of the water - water engineers design and operate water treatment plants, waste water treatment and water recycling schemes. Water quality of natural systems is also a key concern and water engineers can consider the impact of human activities and natural events, such as bushfires, on aquatic ecosystems.
Civil engineers who also have studied some elements of architecture are well qualified to collaborate with architects, artists and other professionals in multidisciplinary, built environment teams to produce integrated and sustainable designs. The ability to communicate across the disciplines of civil engineering and architecture is essential to the success of these projects.
Civil engineers with Civil with architecture degrees could work in Australia or overseas with:
- specialist structural engineering consultants,
- construction and contracting companies,
- federal, state and local government organisations,
- airport and harbour authorities,
- project developers, or
- financial and management consultants in large corporations.
Civil engineers with Civil with architecture degrees not only work with the technical or engineering aspects of building design, they are also heavily involved in coordination and discussions with architects, builders and contractors. This can be complex work which requires coordination with many different parties to consider spatial requirements, costs, safety, workability and structural adequacy.
They work with the ‘big picture’ of the design in an exciting, fast-paced and dynamic industry.