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Civil and structural engineering
The Chu Hai College in Hong Kong; thanks to Mott MacDonald for the image

Want a civil engineering job? Three career decisions you have to make

If you want to be hired as a graduate civil or structural engineer, there are three decisions employers expect you to make before you apply.
Your choice of degree modules and final-year projects can boost your chances of getting hired.

Designs or site? | Industry? | Modules?

Civil engineering graduates are welcome on general engineering schemes and in sectors such as financial management, but every year most choose to pursue their careers in the construction industry (according to HECSU data). Graduates typically apply for a civil or structural engineering job in a particular specialism or industry (see below for an outline of the main specialisms). Larger employers usually hire graduates into a specialist division or business, while smaller organisations often focus on one or two specialisms in total. Whichever sector you choose, however, the nature of the job will differ depending on the type of employer you work for.

Oh, and if you are wondering how much you can earn as a civil engineer, check out our salary round up.

Decision one: working on designs or on site?

Most civil and structural engineers work for either a consultancy or a contractor.

  • Consultants are involved with a project from the outset and work closely with the client, often managing the project on their behalf. Civil and structural engineers at consultancies are responsible for designing structures. Once building begins they help to resolve any design-related difficulties but, apart from the occasional visit to the site, are largely office-based.
  • Contractors, meanwhile, actually build the project once the designs are finalised. They may contract out some work to specialist subcontractors, but they are responsible for the construction process and based on site. Civil and structural engineers at contractors manage teams and oversee the implementation of designs.

Starting out at a consultancy, you might assist with designs or gather data under the supervision of a team leader. Working for a contractor, you would start out by managing a small section of the project or ‘package’ on site. Recruiters will expect you to know the difference between consultancies and contractors and have considered reasons for applying to their type of organisation.

There are also some graduate jobs with very specialist contractors. For example, in coastal and marine, there are companies specialsing in dredging and reclamation, off-shore installations and specialist shipping.

In some industry sectors, including water and rail, you can work for client organisations (such as Network Rail, a water supply company or a local authority), often in a design-based or project management role.

Decision two: which industry?

The main industries or specialisms you could work in are:

  • Airports: Typical projects involve modifying existing airports, including the runways and taxiways (‘airside infrastructure’), maintenance and cargo facilities (‘airside support services’), and terminal buildings.
  • Bridges: Engineers need a strong understanding of structural engineering and the ability to work closely with highways, geotechnical, railway and environmental engineers. In addition to contractors and consultants, specialist structural organisations are involved in the superstructure design. Geotechnical engineers advise on the substructure and foundations. Specialist subcontractors and suppliers focus on areas such as bearings or post-tensioning. Typical clients include the Highways Agency, Network Rail and local authorities.
  • Buildings: Sustainability is often a key consideration. Civil engineers work with building services engineers and other specialists to ensure buildings are designed with climate change in mind and to meet ever-evolving regulations.
  • Coastal and marine: Projects focus on protecting coastal communities against rising sea levels and erosion using sea defences – both hard defences, constructed from concrete, for example, and soft defences, which involve man-made or reconstructed beaches. Engineers may also be involved in building and maintaining ports, offshore wind farms and structures to harness tidal energy.
  • Energy and power: Engineers design and build the infrastructure needed to create energy. Graduates could work on projects such as the designs for an offshore wind facility, the maintenance of an oil platform or the decommissioning of an old nuclear power plant.
  • Environmental: Engineers can become environmental consultants, a role in which they will ascertain and then reduce the impacts of a proposed project on the environment. They can specialise in specific areas, such as flood risk.
  • Geotechnical: In this specialist area, engineers are responsible for the foundations of structures. They assess field data about the ground, soil, rock and boreholes, and find ways to make sure that foundations or slopes are safe and stable. They could specialise in completing site investigations, designing foundations or overseeing the on-site construction work. Specialist postgraduate study is often advantageous.
  • Highways: This job involves overseeing temporary works and permanent works and finding ways to ease traffic congestion, lessen environmental impact and improve road safety.
  • Offshore: This sector is concerned with the safe and profitable development of hydrocarbon resources. Engineers undertake the design and installation of oil production platforms, sub-sea structures, pipelines, permanent and temporary anchorages, and assessments of seabed stability. This can involve conceptual and feasibility studies, site assessments, design of foundations and structures, installation supervision and operational management. Projects can be in isolated locations.
  • Rail: Engineers use their technical knowledge to design, build and maintain the railway system’s infrastructure, including tracks, earthworks and drainage, and telecoms and power. Cost is a particular consideration for engineers in this sector.
  • Tunnelling: This area chiefly calls on specialist structural and geotechnical knowledge but can also involve many elements of underground engineering – rock tunnels, shafts, caverns and stations, for example, may come under the remit of a tunnelling engineer. Engineers also take decisions on a project’s viability in terms of safety, location and cost, and ensure it has a limited impact on the environment and any buildings nearby.
  • Water and public health: The ultimate objective of these projects is to provide clean drinking water and treat wastewater. Engineers might be involved in implementing sustainable water drainage systems, creating energy-efficient treatment plants or improving infrastructure to prevent urban flooding.

As engineering employers only hire into areas where they have a pipeline of projects in place, you may well find more vacancies in areas that are less dependent upon economic growth. These include the energy sectors, water and public health. However, it’s worth investigating how individual employers are performing in different specialisms; even parts of the industry that are suffering overall may have a handful of firms that are managing to turn a profit.

Decision three: which modules?

Your choice of degree modules and final-year projects can boost your chances of getting hired into a particular division, so if you are still studying give some thought to the specialism you’d like to work in. Ecology, thermals and acoustics are becoming increasingly important in the buildings sector, for example, so modules in those areas would be advantageous if you want to specialise in buildings.

‘We look very closely at the modules that candidates have completed,’ says Melissa Hopper, graduate recruitment manager at Mott MacDonald. ‘If your modules are closely aligned to the position, it does give you an advantage as it shows that you already have an interest in the area we are looking to recruit into. For some very specialised roles, we require candidates to have completed modules in related areas.’

Aman Rai, graduate recruitment adviser at Arup, agrees: ‘It gives us an insight into a candidate’s interests by seeing which options they have chosen through their degree. If their career interests now sit elsewhere, they should explain that in the application form.'

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