Civil Engineers – Designing and Constructing Oregon’s Infrastructure

by Emily Starbuck

August 13, 2018

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 2017, 4,326 civil engineers were employed in Oregon, with 66 percent of them employed in the Portland tri-county area (Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties). Civil engineers also earn higher wages on average in the Portland area, but it is a high-wage occupation throughout the state. Statewide hourly wages in 2018 ranged from $27.38 for entry-level positions to $60.42 for experienced workers at the higher end of the pay scale.

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, says “we try to reduce congestion, so there are reduced greenhouse gases.” Karen also works to design transportation projects promoting alternative means of transportation, such as bicycling, and projects incorporating environmentally friendly drainage systems.

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. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) identifies more knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for success in this occupation. 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 showing 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.

Typical entry-level education for this occupation is a bachelor’s degree, but those with a master's degree have a competitive advantage in this labor market. In Oregon, five schools offer bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering: Oregon State University, Portland State University, Oregon Institute of Technology, University of Portland, and George Fox University. The first three universities also offer post-graduate degrees in civil engineering. Oregon’s community colleges offer certificates and associate’s degrees in related fields like renewable energy technology, engineering technology, and civil engineering and surveying technology. 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 pass an exam administered by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying (OSBEELS) to register as a licensed professional engineer (visit the OSBEELS website for more information).

Employment Outlook

The Great Recession impacted employment opportunities for civil engineers as the construction industry was hit hard and funds decreased for public works projects. Now, post-recovery, employment opportunities for civil engineers have increased. According to the Oregon Employment Department's employment projections, the number of civil engineers is projected to grow by 16 percent from 2017 to 2027, with 399 projected annual openings. This occupation is expected to grow faster than the 12 percent average for all occupations statewide. The majority (83%) of these openings are replacement openings to fill existing positions rather than new growth openings.

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 postsecondary education, either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, is required to obtain the varied, necessary skill set and competitive advantage in the labor market. The overall outlook for civil engineering is positive, as there will always be a demand for the design, construction and maintenance of buildings and public infrastructure.

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