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What does a Structural Engineer do?

Imagine you are driving from a rural town to a bustling metropolis. You start down meandering dirt roads, cross the railroad tracks, drive down miles and miles of highways and finally cruise across a colossal bridge alongside hundreds of people into a city of skyscrapers with a bustling subway system running underground. As a structural engineer, you would design, evaluate and maintain the functionality and structural soundness of all of the buildings and public works on this imagined road trip.

Structural engineering is a specialization of civil engineering that focuses on the overall structure of large-scale construction projects. Aside from those mentioned above, some recognizable projects could include dams, energy systems, airports, schools and hospitals. As a structural engineer, you would need to balance designing for everyday use with planning for potential natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods. You would work closely with architects and construction teams in actualizing your designs.

The education of a structural engineer

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), structural engineers typically hold a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. However, courses for specialized engineering degrees largely overlap and it is not uncommon for engineers trained in another specialization, such as electrical or mechanical engineering, to work as a civil engineer.

Bachelor's degrees in engineering typically consist of 2 years of general education courses in mathematics, sciences, social sciences, and humanities, with only the most introductory engineering courses. The next 2-3 years would include coursework in general engineering and civil engineering. An alternative to a 4 or 5-year degree would be a 2 or 4-year engineering technology degree. You would qualify for the same entry-level jobs as a graduate of a bachelor's degree program, but would not be able to register as a professional engineer. Employers would view you as the middle ground between an engineer and a technician.

Getting licensed as a structural engineer

If you have opted to earn a bachelor's degree, your next goal would be to get licensed as a professional engineer (PE) in your state, a requirement to offer your services to the public. This requires a bachelor's degree, 4 years of work experience and passing a series of state exams.

Earnings and job outlook for structural engineers

The industries with the highest levels of employment are:
  • Architectural, engineering and related services
  • State government
  • Local government
  • Nonresidential building construction
  • Federal government
The states with the highest levels of employment are:
  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
The top paying states are:
  • California
  • Louisiana
  • Alaska
  • Texas
  • New Jersey
The BLS reports that employment of civil engineers is projected to increase 24 percent, much faster than the average of all occupations.

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