Civil engineer


Paul, 33

How did you become a civil engineer?

As a kid, Paul loved finding out how things worked. Now he uses those analysing, planning and building skills as project manager for a water utility. He leant towards science and maths in school and wanted a professional career, so he chose engineering. At uni, he got interested in hydraulics - how water moves from one place to another - so he specialised in water engineering: "Roads and dams and water supply systems are a lot more interesting than electrical cables to me."

Four years of hard work followed, studying physics, chemistry, serious maths, hydraulics and structural analysis (how much force things can take before they break). Students also do six months of work experience, which gives them a good idea of the job market.

When Paul graduated, the recession had hit and there was a lot of change in the industry, so he had to take a job interstate. These days it's easier and the water industry is the "glamour" career: "Most [graduates] want to do 'environmental' stuff such as river restoration and water recycling projects."

What does a civil engineer do?

If you think of the water pipes in your house, then think of them all over Melbourne, you'll see the scale that engineers think on. But Paul loves the challenge and the responsibility: "Engineers are the reason why people can turn on a tap and flush the toilet and not worry about the crazy and amazing things water does."

It's a diverse career. You can be a consultant, using computer modelling and doing design work, or focus on the conceptual side, like Paul. He says people interested in policy would work in government, where there's more scope to manage projects and plan for the future, and traditional design engineers would do private sector consulting.

What does a typical work day involve?

As the manager of several construction sites, Paul starts at 7am, meeting with foremen, site engineers, design engineers and construction managers to discuss progress and plans. Then he talks to consultants and designers - "basically my day is meetings" - and deals with finances and administration. He also does a site inspection to check on the morning's plans and make sure the work meets safety standards. Construction sites are one of the most dangerous workplaces, and the buck stops with Paul, so there's plenty to keep tabs on.

He might also do tender interviews, choose contractors, write engineering briefs, or supervise a "commissioning", where you switch on something you've built. It's a nervous moment: "More often than not it doesn't work first time - but you have contingency plans in place." Managing several sites, he travels a lot and it's usually a 50-to 60-hour week (design engineers would work nine-to-five).

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

All this calls for organisation, people skills and time management: "I have to be quite analytical and do a lot of problem solving and prioritisation." Paul says design engineers would need more of an eye for detail than people skills, since they spend more time on technical work.

What are some of the best things about the job?

Paul thinks civil engineers won't have any trouble getting work over the next decade, with big projects planned and severe skills shortages. The lower pay compared to 'white-collar' professions puts some students off, and engineering graduates sometimes end up working overseas.

But Paul highlights the intangible benefits, like job satisfaction and solving problems. "[Engineers have] got a lot of pride in what they do, and think it's an incredibly important job and want to stick with it." Paul hopes one day to work on aid projects, like post-tsunami rebuilding, or policy work such as planning for future environmental sustainability. "If you're into community service, then civil engineering is the way to go."

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