What Is the Job of Civil Engineers And What Is Their Role In A Project?

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The average high school student has only vague ideas about the engineering profession. And despite the fact that some engineers are at the cutting edge of much of society's most exciting technological breakthroughs, the average high school student does not place engineering in the same category as such "exciting" professions as medicine or broadcast journalism. In a recent study, the Brand Consulting Group, a market research firm, asked high school students for their perceptions of civil engineers. Answers ranged from, "the men who drive around in yellow trucks and work for the county," to "the people who build bridges and roads." The firm, which also interviewed college students, the parents of students, and high school counselors, discovered that misinformation about engineering was almost as extensive among these groups. Indeed, the one accurate perception of engineering that respondent in all these groups share is that there is and will continue to be a great demand for engineers.

There are at least 50 specialties in engineering, including aeronautical engineers, agricultural engineers, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, and materials engineers.

The simplest way to define civil engineers is to say they plan, design, construct, and operate physical facilities and structures. The range of these projects, often collectively referred to as the infrastructure, is vast. These include industrial buildings, power plants, and major residential complexes, as well as transportation projects such as bridges, highways, and airports. Likewise, although architects usually get the credit for skyscrapers, or what engineers call "tall buildings," it's the skills of civil engineers that enable these buildings to seemingly defy gravity. Skyscraper building teams typically include civil engineers in the roles of construction manager, structural engineer, and materials specialist.

Civil engineers also plan, design, and supervise the construction of dams, floodwalls, harbors, irrigation works, and other waterways. In an era when environmental issues drive most water retention and distribution projects, the demand is great for civil engineers with expertise in hydrology, erosion, geology, and habitat preservation. For instance, after the devastating 1992 floods in the South and Midwest, civil engineers played a major role in repairing the damage and launching projects designed to better control future flooding. One result was that many floodplains, previously used for farming or industrial and residential uses, were allowed to return to their original states, to serve as buffers of floodwater as well as valuable wildlife habitat.

With the growing national concern for the quality and quantity of drinking water, civil engineers are key players in treating wastewaters and in obtaining and purifying water supplies for the general public.

These have traditionally been the core responsibilities of civil engineers, but job opportunities have expanded greatly in recent years. These include research and development, planning and design, software development, and upper management roles in some of the hottest of the "high tech" companies. The number of consulting engineers, who are often self employed, has also boomed in recent years, making civil engineering fertile ground for entrepreneurs.

Indeed, few career options offer so much flexibility as civil engineering. You can work in the field or in an office or in both. You can work as a designer or as a supervisor. You can work in management at some of the nation's largest firms or work as an independent consultant. Whatever your interests or work environment preferences, training in civil engineering offers you the latitude to shape a personally fulfilling career path.

The Civil Engineer's Role In Projects

Historically, the lines between scientists, engineers, architects, and craft workers have often been blurred. (More on the history of engineers will be presented later). In today's age of specialization, these roles have become more narrowly defined. This is not to imply that a degree in engineering will prevent you from practicing science or architecture. Among the ranks of scientists, architects, city planners, academicians, lawyers, and company CEOs are men and women who got their degrees in engineering. However, for the sake of convenience, what follows is a brief breakdown of the types of careers most closely aligned to engineering and how they differ from engineering.

Scientists are interested in investigating what occurs and why. For instance, scientists who specialize in metallurgy investigate the nature, structure, treatment, and properties of metals and alloys. The structural engineer then applies the scientists' findings toward solving practical problems, such as specifying steel beams with a high tensile strength for components of a bridge or tall building.

Whereas the engineer is concerned chiefly with conceiving and designing plans for projects, engineering technicians are concerned chiefly with the doing and making involved in designs for projects. For instance, technicians typically are responsible for the time and motion studies required to most efficiently carry out the designs developed by engineers. A technician may be the supervisor on a project, responsible for seeing that the construction materials are assembled in the way specified in contract documents by the engineer. In this role the technician also sees that the designs and plans developed by the engineer are implemented by craft workers.

The craft worker is seldom called upon to utilize scientific or engineering principles. Instead, he or she has special skills with tools and experience gained from working on past projects. Craft workers include machinists, construction equipment operators, electricians, carpenters, and masons. Any engineer will tell you that the best conceived project will stand or fall on the skills and proficiency of the craft workers who build it. And the most experienced engineer will pay close heed to feedback from a veteran mason, electrician, or other craft worker who questions some element of a project. Indeed, at the risk of belaboring the team nature of civil engineering projects, authority at a construction site can often seem to flow like mercury from the structural engineer to the supervisor to the architect to a mason to the developer and back again. To the untrained eye it may look like anarchy. To the pros on the job site it's all in a day's work.

Both architects and engineers design projects. However, architects focus their attention on the enclosure of space for human use. Architects are particularly skilled in the aesthetics of buildings and the way buildings functionally serve their human occupants. The projects architects supervise range from assembly line plants to residential townhouses. Architects analyze project requirements, draw up project plans, specify building materials, prepare bidding documents, and administer construction contracts.

The requirements for a degree in architecture include many engineering courses, and architects may be licensed to perform engineering related work. This is why architects traditionally were considered the "prime professionals" in building projects. This means an owner would hire an architect who would then bring the project to fruition with or without the additional support of engineers. Today, the prime professional for a building project may be an architect or an engineer. As an example of how the lines between architects and engineers have blurred, a new discipline has emerged: the architectural engineer, whose expertise includes building design and construction, as well as mechanical and electrical engineering. Indeed, the size and complexity of modern projects have led to a growing number of architectural engineering firms. Among the employees of these firms, which provide "turnkey" (all inclusive) architectural and engineering services, are people who hold degrees in both architecture and engineering.
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