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What Is Civil Engineering?

Margaret Lipman
Updated: Jun 05, 2024

Civil engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines, since civil engineers of one form or another have been around ever since humans started building major public works such as roads, bridges, tunnels, and large public buildings. It is also an incredibly broad discipline, spanning treatment of environmental issues, transportation, power generation, and major structures. To become a civil engineer, a person must typically study engineering at a university and then participate in field work for practical training. Many nations also require that students pass a competency exam to ensure that they will be able to design and build safe, stable structures.

civil engineers

Branches and Specialties

There are many branches of civil engineering, and a wide range of specialties. Some engineers focus on conception and initial design of a project, analyzing the site, the needs, and the resources to come up with a workable project plan. Others specialize in contracting, physically building the structure, managing the site crew, and handling materials and supply. In other cases, civil engineers focus on maintenance of the project after it is completed, to make sure that it is safe and useful.


Most people pick a focus while they are receiving an education. Engineers who focus on transportation, for example, might choose to specialize in building bridges, tunnels, and roads. Others might lean towards power generation facilities, water treatment, waste management, construction of light railways and subways, or other disciplines. In all cases, extensive training is undertaken so that the prospective civil engineer understands his or her chosen field in depth. Behind every major public works is a team of civil engineers.

Key Concerns and Employment

One of the primary concerns of civil engineering is public safety and health. A value is also placed on building structures that are functional, efficient, and also aesthetically pleasing. Structural soundness, conformity with local codes, and functionality are all issues which are faced in the discipline. Some civil engineers work directly for the public in the form of government agencies, while others find employment with public firms.

Education and Continuing Development

Education does not end with a degree and a course of fieldwork with trained and experienced civil engineers. Continuing education is also an important part of this discipline. As advances are made in the field, engineers are expected to keep pace with them, especially when the advances improve safety for workers and the public. There are many trade journals and annual conferences in the field to keep engineers updated.

Civil Engineering Project Management

civil engineering project management

Civil engineering project management is a set of techniques and methodologies used for the construction or repair of bridges, sewage systems, roads, and other civil engineering projects. The techniques used are often refined project management skills, due to the high level of complexity and low error tolerance on these projects. Civil engineering is a discipline that is focused primarily on the development and implementation of infrastructure and systems to support a community of people.

Key Areas of Focus

areas of focus

There are three areas of focus within civil engineering project management: contracting, government requirements, and documentation. These topics are all part of any project management position, but have unique aspects in civil engineering. All projects are completed with government funding, which adds an additional layer of complexity, as the project budget may be quite tight. In addition to financial constraints, political pressure and profile of a project can often impact the overall project plan and support.

Contracting and Procurement

Contracting of suppliers, construction firms, and professional staff is a complex, multi-stage process for any large project. As the project funding is government based, there are often specific requirements included in the funding agreement surrounding the procurement process, licensing requirements, union affiliations and more.

Project managers must take the time to review the agreement in detail and highlight the applicable sections. Compliance is required for funding to continue, and it is a fine line to walk between following these requirements and obtaining best value for dollar. Many civil engineering project managers work with procurement specialists, who are responsible for managing the contracting and tendering process.

Government Requirements and Reporting

Government requirements are often provided as a specific section of the agreement. This may include project milestones, press announcements, confidentiality clauses, financial reporting, and other processes. Progress reports can be quarterly, monthly, or even weekly. Compliance is required both to receive payment on the current project and to be considered for future opportunities.

Documentation and Risk Management

Civil engineering project management guidelines include an increased level of documentation. There are two reasons for this: project length and government reporting requirements. A project can have a very long time frame, as the scope tends to be very broad. As a result, there is an additional reliance on written documentation for everything from change orders to receipt of materials.

Many project managers hire a documentation specialist to manage this process and ensure that the information is recorded for review and discussion. An additional risk with a government funded project is a change in the leadership. This often results in concerns about projects approved by the other political party. Proper documentation of authorization and costs is the best way to reduce this risk.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
Discussion Comments
By anon333183 — On May 03, 2013

I have a Civil Site Engineering business, and here are some tips that I find useful when hiring and keeping engineers.

@college graduates: If you have a masters it won't help you unless you know how to file a permit, know due diligence, how to file a Notice of Intent with the newspaper or have the patience with clients who are doing this for the first time and not get crabby with those who have been doing this for a long time, who know what they want and in the time they want it. Many times, these are the ones who pay well. Some clients will need you to hold their hand through their whole project and others will hold yours.

See the big picture. Have some tact with governing entities that will issue your permits. Don't make promises you can't keep. Learn new ideas.

Take your EI test as soon as you can after you graduate while the information is still fresh.

Get a contact list and keep it. You may need it, even 10 or 15 years down the line. Be responsible for yourself.

By anon302041 — On Nov 07, 2012

At work I have been talking to a potential client. He says he needs specific programs in civil. He is in the petroleum industry. Does civil mean civil engineering?

By anon247507 — On Feb 13, 2012

I am interested in civil engineering, but like JessiC said, I still don't know whether there is enough room for employment or not, because where I come from, (Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific), there are only four engineering companies.

By JessiC — On Apr 14, 2011

I'm not sure if a person who is interested in going into civil engineering should have hands-on experience or not. I am very interested in architecture and such, but I don’t have a clue how to get started with it. Also, are their enough civil engineering jobs to make going into that field worthwhile? After all, there’s not much point in getting a degree that has no hope of employment in the future.

By Agni3 — On Apr 11, 2011

It seems like those who choose to go into civil engineering definitely have to get a 4-year degree. I was wondering if they also might need to get a masters or if keeping up to date with things a course at the time would be enough.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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