As of 2006, there were about 250,000 civil engineers in the workforce (BLS, 2008). Of those, 65% to 75% worked in private practice, 24% to 34% in government, and 1% in academia. Many private consultants do contract work for government agencies, making the line between government and private employment a bit fuzzy. The large percentage of civil engineers working in the government sector distinguishes civil engineering from other engineering disciplines. For example, only about 5% of electrical engineers and less than 1% of industrial engineers work in the government sector (BLS, 2008).
Private-sector employers range from large multi-national corporations such as Bechtel with more than 42,000 employees to small design or consulting practices with one to 10 employees. Employers include private utilities with their own civil engineering departments, or design firms providing consulting services. Private firms provide services in all of the areas discussed above. Employees include designers, analysts, planners, operations managers, materials testers, and researchers. Job responsibilities vary considerably.
Entry-level civil engineers working for a land development company might spend much of their time interacting with computerized drafting and geographic information systems. A senior partner in the same firm would be interfacing with clients and city planners. Employees of a construction management company would spend much of their time in the field at the construction site.
Government-employed civil engineers work for federal, state, and local governments, municipalities, towns, townships, and counties, school districts, and special districts. At the federal level, a civil engineer might be employed by the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations related to grading and erosion, or by the Army Corps of Engineers to design and manage flood control projects. At the state level, many civil engineers work for transportation or regulatory agencies.
Examples of regulatory agencies are the Air Resources Board of a state or regional agency, the Office of Public Safety, or the Department of Health and the Environment (or agencies with similar names). At the local level, civil engineers tend to work in departments that are involved in planning and community development, as well as in public works departments that manage streets and some pipelines, or agencies that operate utilities or waste facilities such as recycling centers and landfills.
Academics work mostly in four-year colleges and in universities offering the master’s and doctoral degrees, but some are faculty in community colleges. Civil engineering, and other engineering disciplines, are only rarely offered in high schools or lower grade levels at the present time. In addition to teaching courses, academics collaborate with students and industry partners on basic and applied research projects. Projects might range from developing a new type of material for green building construction to testing a utility’s electrical equipment for seismic resistance.