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Civil Engineers - Designing and Constructing Oregon's Infrastructure
by Martin Kraal
Published Jun-15-2012

 
From the water we drink to the roads we travel, civil engineers affect many areas of our daily lives. They design and oversee the construction and maintenance of building structures and public infrastructure, such as roads, railroads, airports, bridges, harbors, channels, dams, irrigation projects, pipelines, power plants, water and sewage systems, and waste disposal units. The occupation includes sub-disciplines such as architectural, structural, transportation, ocean, and geotechnical engineers. Civil engineers can be found in both the private and public sectors as well as across several industry sectors, including construction; professional, scientific, and technical services; and management of companies and enterprises.

In 2010, 3,180 civil engineers were employed in Oregon, with approximately half working in Multnomah and Washington counties. Hourly wages for civil engineers in 2011 varied from $24.48 for entry-level positions to $51.11 for experienced workers at the higher end of the pay scale. Statewide, the median hourly wage was $35.56 with an average (mean) annual wage of $76,079, making civil engineers a high-wage occupation. For all occupations in Oregon, the median hourly wage was $16.90 and the average (mean) annual wage was $44,290.

A Green Occupation
 
Although not all civil engineering jobs are considered "green," several aspects of the job can be. Civil engineers can design buildings, roads, water systems, and other facilities to help prevent and mitigate environmental degradation and create sustainable communities that support social and economic needs.

Karen Odenthal, a transportation engineer with Marion County Public Works, states that "we try to reduce congestion, so there are reduced greenhouse gases." Karen also works to design transportation projects that promote alternative means of transportation, such as bicycling, and projects that incorporate drainage systems that are environmentally friendly.

Though aspects of the job have likely always been "green," more attention has been given to environmental issues in recent years. The American Society of Civil Engineers has identified sustainability as a key issue in which "it is incumbent on civil engineers to lead the next shift in sustainable planning, design and construction."

Education, Skills, and Training
 
A typical career for a civil engineer is anything but typical, thus they possess a variety of skills (Table 1). Civil engineers must be problem solvers. They must have the ability to use mathematic and scientific principles to identify and resolve an engineering issue or infrastructure need. They must be organized and detail oriented to create and follow blueprints, maps, design specifications, and regulations.

Though certain skills and methods of the occupation have not changed over the years, new technologies have changed the way civil engineers perform their duties. Thomas Miller, Associate Professor at the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University, states that computer programs are now used to create three-dimensional models that show how parts of a design are integrated. Engineers also utilize the latest structural analysis and design software as well as modern equipment for surveying.

Finally, civil engineers must be able to work in teams and communicate effectively. Dr. Miller said the occupation has changed over the years to include "more public involvement in large projects." Thus civil engineers need to be able to work with and explain projects and designs to public officials, community leaders, and citizens.

To obtain the necessary skills to be a civil engineer, workers must have a bachelor's degree. However, those with a master's degree have a competitive advantage in this labor market. In Oregon, four schools offer bachelor degrees in civil engineering: Oregon State University, Portland State University, Oregon Institute of Technology, and University of Portland. Two of these schools, Oregon State University and Portland State University, offer post-graduate degrees. Several community colleges also offer associate degrees related to civil engineering. Students often supplement their degrees with summer internships and jobs with civil engineering design firms or public agencies to gain experience in the field.

Civil engineers must also be registered as professional engineers, which they achieve by passing an exam administered by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying (visit oregon.gov/OSBEELS/registration.shtml for more information).

Table 1
Select Skills for Civil Engineers
Analyze engineering design problems
Apply mathematical principles to identify, analyze, and solve problems
Apply structural and safety principles to buildings and other construction projects
Calculate stress, load, or capacity of structures and materials
Coordinate teams
Design and lay out construction projects
Estimate costs and time needed for engineering projects
Interpret maps for architecture, construction, and civil engineering
Plan and design public works projects
Provide consulting services
Read blueprints and technical drawings
Research and apply land use regulations
Use land and site surveying instruments and techniques
Visualize spatial relationships in construction and mapping
Employment Outlook
 
Though the Great Recession impacted the employment opportunities for civil engineers as the construction industry was hit hard and funds decreased for public works projects, employment opportunities remain for civil engineers. According to the Oregon Employment Department's employment projections from 2010 to 2020, the number of civil engineers is projected to grow by 17.7 percent with 127 projected annual openings (Table 2). Compared with the statewide average, the total number of openings in the occupation is projected to be somewhat higher. The majority (55%) of these openings are due to the need to replace workers who leave the occupation, such as retirees.

Table 2
Regional Employment Projections and Average Wages
      Total Projected Annual Openings 2011 Average Annual Pay
Region Employment 2010 Employment  2020 Percent Change 
Oregon Statewide 3,180 3,743 17.70% 127 $76,079
Multnomah / Washington 1,639 1,963 19.80% 69 $78,183
Marion / Polk / Yamhill 393 439 11.70% 13 $76,164
Clackamas 219 263 20.10% 9 $77,385
Lane 193 228 18.10% 8 $75,522
Benton / Lincoln / Linn 137 159 16.10% 5 $71,004
Crook / Deschutes / Jefferson 124 140 12.90% 4 $72,620
Jackson / Josephine 93 101 8.60% 3 $62,007
Douglas 58 65 12.10% 2 $67,735
Gilliam / Hood River / Sherman / Wheeler / Wasco 52 66 26.90% 3 $65,163
Coos / Curry 43 46 7.00% 1 $87,157
Klamath / Lake 43 47 9.30% 1 $73,771
Baker / Union / Wallowa 43 46 7.00% 1 $68,064
Clatsop / Columbia / Tillamook 36 42 16.70% 2 $75,789
Morrow / Umatilla 17 19 11.80% 0 $74,774
Grant / Harney / Malheur 16 16 0.00% 0 $67,164
Summary
 
Regardless of the planning, design, and construction specifics of any particular project, civil engineers are problem solvers. They apply mathematic and scientific principles and work with key stakeholders to design, construct, and maintain buildings and infrastructure. Civil engineers analyze the larger societal and environmental issues of projects and can help prevent and mitigate environmental degradation.

Civil engineering is a challenging but rewarding occupation. Civil engineers are well paid, but a postsecondary education, either a bachelor's or master's degree, is required to obtain the varied, necessary skill set. Though the current job market is competitive, reasonable employment opportunities exist for this occupation as there will always be a demand for the design, construction and maintenance of buildings and public infrastructure.