What is civil and environmental engineering?

Civil engineering covers technologies that relate to ordinary citizens — such as you and your community — and the design, building and maintenance of infrastructures and services that meet their needs.

Environmental engineering involves how we use science and technology in our interactions with the natural world, including the impacts of human activity and how we can mitigate those effects.

When we consider “What is civil engineering” or “What is environmental engineering,” we can look at how these fields overlap and stand apart. 

Civil engineers focus on concerns like safe buildings, convey materials, critical services like drinking water, reliable transportation systems and distributing power. The role of environmental engineers is to design, test and apply technologies that reduce and eliminate pollution, treat water as a key resource, and account for ecological and environmental considerations in both development and conservation efforts.

Civil engineers’ roles overlap with environmental engineers in areas like power generation, treatment infrastructure to produce clean water, waste processing and developing sustainable infrastructure that accounts for the impacts of climate change. 

Why you should consider this field

Roads, sinks, buildings, light switches, parks, doorways — so much of what you encounter on an average day bears a civil or environmental engineer’s stamp of approval. Few fields have such a wide-ranging influence on human progress at community, national and global levels.

We need civil and environmental engineers to tackle growing needs like climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, and affordable essential services. This engineering skillset is also vital for the upkeep of existing infrastructures: our built environment is aged and confronted by monumental changes in climate pressures that require innovative solutions.

Civil and environmental engineering are dynamic professions that apply and integrate elements of mechanical engineering, management and economics, electrical engineering, materials science, computer science, physics, and chemistry. With these multidisciplinary skills, you’ll build, improve and maintain the places and environments where people live, work and play.

Different types of civil and environmental engineers

As you explore how to become a civil engineer or environmental engineer, consider the many specializations within these fields:

  • Structural engineering — design structures that withstand the stresses and pressures of their environment.
  • Transportation engineering — plan, design, operate and maintain safe and efficient transportation networks, including those for bicycles, cars, trains or autonomous vehicles.
  • Construction management and engineering — design, plan, sequence, select materials and execute processes to build efficient and lasting infrastructure, from houses to bridges to power plants or wastewater pumping stations.
  • Geotechnical engineering — study soil and rock behavior to design and create stable foundations, earthen structures and pavement subgrades that are resilient and sustainable in the face of a changing climate.
  • Water resource management — plan and design drinking water production and distribution systems, as well as wastewater collection, conveyance and treatment systems.
  • Environmental stewardship — explore sustainable solutions to human impacts on the environment, as well as how to safely deactivate or store pollutants.

Where do they work?

Civil and environmental engineers generally split their work between office settings and the field. As a civil engineer, you will often work at construction sites, sometimes in trailer offices, or temporary offices for longer-term projects. As an environmental engineer, you may find yourself in a variety of contexts, including construction sites and undeveloped sites to carry out assessments of ecological and environmental conditions and work with municipal, state and federal government agencies.

Engineering roles are usually full-time, with some positions and projects demanding at least 40 hours per week.

How to become a civil and environmental engineer

Educational requirements

To launch a career in environmental and civil engineering, you will need a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering (BSCE). Employers typically favor candidates with practical experiences, such as laboratory work, internships and co-ops.

Once you’ve completed your undergraduate degree, you will be eligible to complete the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. After gaining at least four years of professional experience as an engineer in training (EIT), you can take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam to qualify for Professional Engineering licensure.

Licensure standards vary by state, but many jurisdictions require continuing education as a cornerstone of maintaining licensure. You may also pursue additional certification from boards such as the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists or the American Society of Civil Engineers.

What skills are needed to be successful in civil and environmental engineering?

Civil and environmental engineering is the ideal career for the curious, the problem-solvers and the world rejuvenators. You’ll succeed in this field with strong math and science skills, a teamwork-oriented mindset and clear communication strategies. Bring your creativity and your interest in understanding how things fit together; we’ll help you develop the confidence and know-how to turn those passions into a lifelong career.

Career outlook

Civil and environmental engineering careers are rewarding, impactful and reliable fields. Your undergraduate degree will prepare you for entry-level positions, from which you can pursue more rigorous professional opportunities and graduate study to earn Professional Engineering licensure and take on more complex roles.

These fields are well compensated: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average civil engineering salary is $88,050 per year; salaries for environmental engineers average at $96,820. U.S. News & World Report also highly rates the desirability of these professions, with environmental engineering in its list of 100 Best Jobs and at #3 among engineering professions (civil engineering is close behind at #4!).