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What Do Civil Engineers Actually Do?

What Do Civil Engineers Actually Do?

According to Google, the majority of people coming to my blog are looking for an answer to the age old question: “What do Civil Engineers actually do?”. Bewilderingly this isn’t something I’ve actually written about, until now…

Perhaps surprisingly, finding out what you need to keep something from falling down is the easy bit; the devil is very much in the detail.

I could toe the party line; but frankly it’s amazing how so many dynamic words can say so little. Instead I’ve taken to my timesheet to find out what I have literally been doing these past few months. Before I continue, however, it’s worth pointing out that I’m a graduate engineering consultant working at a medium sized company. I’ll go into how all three of those words make a difference to the answer at the end.

A chart showing what civil engineers do

A chart showing what civil engineers do

Design Things – 31%

A not unexpected top result, given that it’s my job to design things. A further breakdown, however, shows that only a third of my time is spent doing ‘structural’ design. Perhaps surprisingly, finding out what you need to keep something from falling down is the easy bit; the devil is very much in the detail. In my experience a ‘detail’ is problem initially introduced with the prefix just (such as “those beams will all just meet in the middle,” or “we’ll just use a robust kerb and it’ll be fine,”) and ends up taking three days to solve.

Write Things – 19%

It’s startling how many documents engineers have to write. Anyone who tells you it’s all maths and physics is simply lying. From short explanations of how you’re going to design something, to colossal 90 page justifications of geotechnical parameters, it all adds up. For most designs the calculation page count pales in comparison to the associated documentation- especially with public sector clients; if I confess to having written a 15 page instruction manual for a pond, it wouldn’t be the worst of it.

Model Things – 14%

Separate from designing is modelling. In an ideal world every structure would be built, tested for 120 years, knocked down and then re-built and commissioned. Few clients, however, are willing to accept an 120 year lead time, and therefore structures have to be designed on paper. Creating and manipulating representative mathematical models and justifying and accounting for the assumptions made in their development is probably one of the best bits of engineering- although that might just be me!

Draw Things – 13%

The principal currency of information between engineers is the Drawing. Although it’s the eventual job of a draughtsman to craft my grubby hand-drawings into works of technical merit, creating these sketches is a no mean feat. Between conceptual sketches for clients and contractors, providing all the mark-ups and notes to create a drawing you can build from, and chipping in when deadlines are uncomfortably close- having someone else to draw for you isn’t as much of as an advantage as it first appears.

Discuss Things – 11%

Engineering is a surprisingly social profession. Long has the lesson been learned that getting together to discuss a design with everyone involved will save a lot of time in the long run. Consequently I spend a lot of my life in meetings arguing about details and trying to reveal the secret desires of clients before, rather than after, we’ve drawn everything up. And then, of course, there’s the contractors on site, who apparently consider a day wasted if they don’t call up at least sixty (or so) times.

Visit Things – 6%

Designing blind is a dangerous task, and despite being principally office based I still get out on site two or three times a month. Most of the time this is just to help investigate, inspect and identify potential issues. For complex (and seemingly all night-) works, however, contractors often like to have the designer at hand so that they can be pointed at if it all goes wrong- and then left to find a fix.

Learn Things – 5%

I once heard someone describe Civil Engineers as ‘jacks of all trades, masters of none,’ and its true. Civil engineers work with so many different materials, in so many areas, facing infinitely varied conditions; everything a unique problem- that you barely get time to get your head around one thing before you are onto another. As such, some of my time is still spent simply learning new things and researching options.

The Three Magic Words

As I mentioned at the very start, what Civil Engineers actually do is influenced by experience, discipline and the company.

As a graduate I take on most of the ‘grunt work’ of the design, however as I head higher up the tree this will start to tend towards management and conceptual elements. Perhaps most dividing is the type of engineer you ask, where consultants primarily design, and contractors primarily get things built; the contrast on how each spend their days will be significant (with contractors spending much more time on site). Finally the bigger the firm the more likely you are to develop a more focused set of activities, for example many large companies have modelling technicians.

So next time you wonder what Civil Engineers actually do, be prepared for an 839 word answer!

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  1. Jonny Yusuf

    Interesting article! I’d surmise that 60% of the above is communication, with clients, contractors, other engineers and other design professionals! I reckon good Engineering is the communication of knowledge, advice and instructions clearly and concisely; often converting complex theory into simple tangible information.

    • A nice surmise; although I’ve always thought of it as problem solving- isn’t good communication just another problem to be solved?

  2. Dr Radhakrishna

    First, it is discuss, discuss, discuss. Then it is draw, review, discuss, re-draw, re-review, re-re-draw. Soil tests, reports, water sources, water tests, reports, power requirement, availability, reports. Then, estimate, discuss, review, re-draw, re-estimate…three times. Finally, BOQ, tender, tender appraisal reports, acceptance of contract. Regulations, licences, approvals, material acceptance, 60 calls a day, quality, balance, balance, balance. Ultimately, completion. Meanwhile, the next project has already started !!! But new things come up everyday and I agree, we are learning every day. This is the real fun ! 🙂

  3. Aris lubona

    I am a student in civil engineering at a college in south Africa. I’m writing here is because I find your discussion very interesting since I pledge to make it my career.

  4. This is some really good information about what civil engineers do. My little brother wants to be an engineer but he isn’t sure what type he wants to be. He does like designing things, so it is good to know that 31 percent of the job.


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