Careers advice and planning

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

27 Oct 2023, 09:51

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 for one of their vacancies.

A building by Mott MacDonald in Hong Kong

Your choice of degree modules and final-year projects can boost your chances of getting hired.

Decisions: Designs or site? | Industry? | Modules? | Be inspired by civil engineers in jobs

If you are on a civil engineering or structural engineering degree course, you have an abundance of career choices available to you. If you don’t think civil engineering is for you, you are able to apply for a range of general engineering graduate schemes, join a closely related profession such as transport planning or go into such professions as investment banking and accountancy and financial management . However, according to HECSU data, the vast majority of civil engineering graduates find work within the construction industry.

When you are applying for civil or structural engineering jobs, you are likely to apply for a role or graduate scheme 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. We outline some of the decisions you’ll have to make – and hopefully make them easier for you.

Oh, and if you are wondering how much you can earn as a civil engineer and who has the highest salaries, 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.

Use our infographic to work out whether a consultant or contractor is right for you.

There are also some graduate jobs with very specialist contractors. For example, in coastal and marine, there are companies specialising 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 nuclear powerplant, a water supply company or a local authority). Depending on the organisation, you might be in a design-based, maintenance-based or project management role.

Decision two: which industry?

The main industries or specialisms you could work in are:

  • Airports/aviation: 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 (sometimes called nuclear 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: 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.

Some engineering employers group together some of the above disciplines under a particular umbrella division: 'transportation', for example, might group together highways, rail, aviation, tunnelling and bridges projects.

How do you choose which civil engineering field is best for you? A lot will depend on your personal preferences: what modules and projects did you enjoy from your course? What did you enjoy or not enjoy from your internships?

But it’s worth noting that the number of graduate jobs in each field varies each year. As engineering employers only hire into areas where they have a pipeline of projects in place, you may well find more vacancies in areas where there is stable demand, no matter what happens with Brexit or the wider economy.These areas include UK-based projects in infrastructure (bridges, highways, rail and so on), the energy sectors and water. However, it’s worth investigating how individual employers are performing in different specialisms and locations; even parts of the industry that are suffering overall may have a handful of firms that are growing and need engineers.

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, early careers talent acquisition 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 Gill, early careers leader 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.'

Need more inspiration? Examples of what graduate engineers do at different employers

‘I work on bridges, creating designs to see whether the bridge would be technically sustainable. We start by making sketches of what we think the design would look like and then create computer models to test it: for example, applying loads (eg of traffic and air pressure) to ensure that the bridge would remain standing. I’m also working on a feasibility study where we are given a brief by a client to devise and evaluate options that will meet that brief and provide recommendations. I always work in a team and am mostly office based but also do visit sites to conduct inspections.’

Joshua McGregor, graduate bridge engineer at Jacobs (consultancy)

‘I work in a team of four specialising in water asset management. My current project is for a water company, creating a strategy to enhance the management of their assets (eg pipe networks, water pumping stations and water treatments plants) to inform their investment decisions. For instance, we look at how assets behaved in the past to create statistical models to predict how they will behave in the future.’

Joel Thai, engineer in the water asset management team at AECOM (consultancy)

‘One of my projects on the graduate programme was working on the Northern line extension: I built the two shafts at Kennington and the station box at Nine Elms. I was responsible for the reinforcement package (part of the project) on the pile construction, ensuring quality so the structure’s integrity wasn’t compromised. I made sure that the workforce was working safely and the activities planned for the day were delivered, I also managed budgets and had technical responsibilities. I worked with the client, the local stakeholders and the community to make sure the construction process didn’t impact on them.’

Sarah Leggett, now a section engineer at Laing O’Rourke (contractor), on working in rail

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