Civil, structural and geotechnical engineers: job roles explained
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Civil and structural engineers design, build and maintain the constructed world around us: bridges, tunnels, roads, railways, dams, pipelines, buildings, power plants, offshore wind facilities and so on. They ensure the technical detail in architects’ plans will work in practice. They often specialise in a type of project, such as highways.
Structural engineers have particular responsibility for ensuring that the structure (innerframework) of the project holds up whatever the weather.
The job of a civil or structural engineer differs
Before you apply to an employer, you should know what type of organisation it is because the job you do will be very different depending on where you work.
- If you work for a construction or engineering consultant – who designs and plans projects – you will be working on the technical aspects of designs, using computer-aided design packages.
- If you work for a construction or engineering contractor – who builds the project – you’ll make sure that the design is implemented properly.
- If you work for a public sector organisation or utilities supplier, you’ll help to investigate the need for public services, such as roads, and maintain them.
Our feature explaining how a construction project gets built tells you more about what contractors and consultants do.
About geotechnical engineers
If structural engineering takes your fancy, consider geotechnical engineering too. Geotechnical engineers are responsible for structures’ foundations. Work includes assessing data from the field, finding ways to ensure foundations or slopes are stable, designing foundations, and overseeing work on a construction site. They often work for consultancies.
They are a good choice if…
- You can draw basic sketches – you don’t have to be an artist.
- You like knowing the technical details of how things work (for jobs with consultancies).
- You’d like to work out on site instead of in an office (for jobs with contractors).
- You want to be able to say ‘I helped build that!’
No, but getting a degree can be the quickest route to reaching the top of your field.
There are more degree courses available in civil engineering than in structural or geotechnical engineering, but employers do accept a civil engineering degree for structural or geotechnical jobs. Whichever degree you choose, it should be approved by the ICE and/or the Institution of Structural Engineers.
You can get into civil, structural or geotechnical engineering through an apprenticeship, school leaver programme or an engineering degree (usually either a three-year BEng or a four-year MEng course). But the amount of responsibility you get in the workplace depends on your levels of education and experience. The Engineering Council regulates the profession and has three levels of engineer:
- engineering technician
- incorporated engineer
- chartered engineer.
Chartership is the most senior level, at which engineers are recognised as able to take the lead on projects and on developing solutions. They tend to receive the highest salaries. Even as an experienced technician, you could find that a less experienced, just-chartered graduate will outrank you.
When you are starting out on an apprenticeship or graduate programme, you are eligible to train towards:
- technician level if you have GCSEs, A levels, an HNC/HND or BTEC/NVQ level 3 (or equivalent)
- incorporated level if you have a BEng degree
- chartered level if you have an MEng degree or a BEng-plus-a-postgraduate-masters-degree.
The level (or professional qualification) you achieve is awarded by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) or the Institution of Structural Engineers.
You can start out training towards technician status and then work your way up to incorporated and chartered status (either by gaining an appropriate level of in-the-workplace experience or by studying a relevant academic qualification with your employer’s support). Because of this, an advanced or higher apprenticeship can lead to either technician or incorporated status, depending on its level and content. But the quickest way to climb the career ladder is to study an MEng, which you may be able to get through a degree apprenticeship.
If you want to get on a degree course or a higher apprenticeship, you’ll need to take maths and, traditionally, physics at A level (or equivalent). Other useful subjects to take at GCSE and A level include further maths, computing, chemistry and DT. But do check the requirements of the employers and/or universities that interest you. For geotechnical courses, some universities request you take geography.