Our guide to civil engineering
Jane McGuire

Our guide to civil engineering

Our guide to civil engineering

Published March 07 2016

What is civil engineering? Put quite simply, civil engineering refers to the design, construction and maintenance of public works. Think roads, bridges, canals and dams, to the motorways and transport systems we use to commute to work every single day. Quite simply, without civil engineers we wouldn’t live the lives we do today.

The chances are if you are reading this guide you are interested in learning more about civil engineering and the routes into the industry. With plenty of courses to choose from, we’ve tried to summarise things in one handy guide. 


That’s all well and good, but what do civil engineers actually do?

Good question! Civil engineers are the brains behind the design, construction and operation of all manmade projects and systems. This includes the building you sit in reading this, the airports you use when you go on holiday and the roads you travel along.

Every stage of the project will involve a different team of engineers; they will be the people ensuring the site is correct and safe before construction begins, and the ones testing the reliability of materials and structures before they open to the public.

Yet it’s important to note, civil engineers are not only behind some of the world’s most jaw dropping sculptures and bridges, but the ones trying to answer some of the modern world’s biggest problems. For example, how to maintain and adapt the infrastructures we depend on in the face of population growth, climate change and natural disasters.


What are the two main types of civil engineer?

Although most courses will cover both sides, when working in industry, civil engineers will usually choose to specialise as consultants or contractors. These two sectors are pretty self explanatory – where consultants remain in the office, designing blueprints and working with clients, contractors will be based on site, overseeing physical construction. Doing a course is a good way to work out where your skills lie and which type of working environment suits you best.


Why do I need to go on a course?

In order to gain a job as a civil engineer you will need the correct training. Whilst there are a number of different routes, you will need to find an accredited course which is recognised by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

It’s important to note, this doesn’t always mean a degree. Whilst many aspiring civil engineers will follow this path, there are also options for apprenticeships and diplomas within the sector.

To get things started, you will need to be good at, or at least interested in STEM subjects before signing up to a course, as these will feature heavily on your syllabus. Although every course will vary, from those giving you an introduction to the industry to others focusing on more advanced skills, most beginners’ courses will focus on general introductory modules. These include health and safety, the mathematical and scientific elements of construction, surveying, structural mechanics and CAD design.


What are the career opportunities for me?

Although getting qualified as a civil engineer might be a lot of hard work, the opportunities for progression once you are working in the industry really are endless. As a civil engineer, you can specialise in any of the following sectors – structural, transportation, environmental, maritime and geotechnical.

Whichever sector you choose, working as a civil engineer will involve a lot of planning, analysing and testing, as well as preparing bids and managing and directing progress during each stage of a project. For more information the Institution of Civil Engineers is a good place to start.


Did you know?

- The first self-proclaimed civil engineer was John Smeaton who constructed the Eddystone Lighthouse.

- The Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in 1818, in a coffee shop in London, by eight young civil engineers. The youngest was in fact only 19!

- The Empire State Building was actually built in just 18 months during the Great Depression. Although it is now commonplace, it was one of the first builds to employ the fast track construction technique. 

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