Civil engineers design major construction projects, such as roads, airports, tunnels, dams and bridges. They also supervise project construction and maintenance. They must possess a very broad skill set, from cost accounting to geology. Many civil engineers have jobs that require a very hands-on role in construction, while others may have positions more heavily weighted toward supervisory and administrative skills. They are often called upon to present reports to the public or government officials. Whatever the details of their role, civil engineers must often manage very complex projects, leading many to specialize in one of several areas.
Civil engineers carry a great deal of responsibility as they are ultimately in charge of the entire project’s design and implementation. They must be able to lead a diverse team of professionals, including surveyors, construction managers, technicians, contractors, architects, urban planners, transportation engineers and others, as well as maintain the confidence of governmental planning authorities. The effectiveness of the civil engineer’s leadership skills may be a significant determining factor in keeping a project on time and on budget.
Civil engineers are often confronted with complex problems and must be able to identify the most reasonable approach in dealing with them, as well as effectively and accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of possible solutions. This includes the ability to reason inductively and deductively, applying general rules to specific problems and combining many specific pieces of information to form broad conclusions.
The ability to imagine what something will look like when it’s finished and visualize how complex components will come together is one of the most important skills a civil engineer can have. Visualization skills must be flexible and dynamic in order to identify and resolve issues before they can become problems. Because there are so many component parts to large-scale projects, civil engineers must be able to envision how the interrelationships change when one or more individual aspects are changed.
Because civil engineers interact with such a wide variety of professionals, they must be able to communicate effectively with different types of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise. They must be skilled “active listeners,” to get the full benefit from the ideas of others and communicate their own ideas both orally and in writing, often to those without a background in engineering.
Advanced skills in mathematics, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus and statistics are crucial to a civil engineer, who must apply the appropriate mathematical formulas and principles in his design work as well as to problem solving. As project budgets and costs are an integral part of his responsibilities, he must also be proficient in reading and interpreting financial spreadsheets. He must be highly skilled in physics and the practical application of scientific rules, methods and the technology involved in the many aspects of the project, including design principles, construction methods and materials, soil analysis, and numerous environmental factors. It is also important for a civil engineer to be skilled in architectural design techniques and working with blueprints, maps, drawings and models, as well as computer programs used in architectural design and construction.
Civil engineers must be able to evaluate the work of others on the project and make sure they are in compliance with applicable laws, regulations and standards. They are the only ones with the authority to sign the plans for infrastructure projects. Their success and reputation depends heavily on their being able to accurately estimate costs, resources and materials as well as the time it will take to complete the various aspects of the project.