Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They are involved in efforts to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control. They also address global issues, such as unsafe drinking water, climate change, and environmental sustainability.
Environmental engineers typically do the following:
- Prepare, review, and update environmental investigation reports
- Design projects leading to environmental protection, such as water reclamation facilities, air pollution control systems, and operations that convert waste to energy
- Obtain, update, and maintain plans, permits, and standard operating procedures
- Provide technical support for environmental remediation projects and for legal actions
- Analyze scientific data and do quality-control checks
- Monitor the progress of environmental improvement programs
- Inspect industrial and municipal facilities and programs to ensure compliance with environmental regulations
- Advise corporations and government agencies about procedures for cleaning up contaminated sites
Environmental engineers conduct hazardous-waste management studies in which they evaluate the significance of the hazard and advise on treating and containing it. They also design systems for municipal and industrial water supplies and industrial wastewater treatment, and research the environmental impact of proposed construction projects. Environmental engineers in government develop regulations to prevent mishaps.
Some environmental engineers study ways to minimize the effects of acid rain, global warming, automobile emissions, and ozone depletion. They also collaborate with environmental scientists, planners, hazardous waste technicians, engineers, and other specialists, such as experts in law and business, to address environmental problems and environmental sustainability. For more information, see the job profiles on environmental scientists and specialists, hazardous materials removal workers, lawyers, and urban and regional planners.
Environmental engineers held about 53,200 jobs in 2012. They work in a variety of settings because of the nature of the tasks they do:
- When they are working with other engineers and urban and regional planners, environmental engineers are likely to be in offices.
- When they are working with business people and lawyers, environmental engineers are likely to be at seminars, where they present information and answer questions.
- When they are working with hazardous waste technicians and environmental scientists, environmental engineers work at specific sites outdoors.
The industries that employed the most environmental engineers in 2012 were as follows:
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||28%|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||21|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||13|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||7|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||6|
Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work overtime to monitor the project’s progress and recommend corrective action when needed. Overtime work frequently is necessary to make sure that deadlines are met and that the project is built according to specifications.
Environmental engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field, such as civil, chemical, or general engineering. Employers also value practical experience. Therefore, cooperative engineering programs, in which college credit is awarded for structured job experience, are valuable as well. Getting a license improves the chances for employment.
Students interested in becoming an environmental engineer should take high school courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and math, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.
Entry-level environmental engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Programs typically last 4 years and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs in which students gain practical experience while completing their education.
At some colleges and universities, a student can enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s and a master's degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some colleges and universities or to do research and development.
Many engineering programs are accredited by ABET. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have graduated from an accredited program. A degree from an ABET-accredited program is usually necessary to become a licensed professional engineer.
Imagination. Environmental engineers sometimes have to design systems that will be part of larger ones. They must be able to foresee how the proposed designs will interact with other components of the larger system, including the workers, machinery, and equipment, as well as the environment.
Interpersonal skills. Environmental engineers must be able to work with others toward a common goal. They usually work with engineers and scientists who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.
Problem-solving skills. When designing facilities and processes, environmental engineers strive to solve several issues at once, from workers’ safety to environmental protection. They must be able to identify and anticipate problems in order to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and mitigate environmental damage.
Reading skills. Environmental engineers often work with business people, lawyers, and other professionals outside their field. They frequently are required to read and understand documents with topics outside their scope of training.
Writing skills. Environmental engineers must be able to write clearly so that others without their specific training can understand their plans, proposals, specifications, findings, and other documents.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Environmental engineers are encouraged to become licensed as a professional engineer (PE). Licensure generally requires the following:
- A degree from an engineering program accredited by ABET
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Relevant work experience
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial FE exam can be taken after graduation. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After getting suitable work experience, EITs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.
Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states if the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own requirements.
After licensing, environmental engineers can earn board certification from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists. This certification shows that an environmental engineer has expertise in one or more areas of specialization.
As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects and they have greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions. Eventually, environmental engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians.
Some may even become engineering managers or move into executive positions, such as program managers. However, before assuming a managerial position, an engineer most often works under the supervision of a more experienced engineer. Advancement into a managerial position usually requires a master’s degree.
The median annual wage for environmental engineers was $80,890 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,510, and the top 10 percent earned more than $122,290.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for environmental engineers in the top five industries employing these engineers were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$98,890|
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||81,900|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||77,000|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||75,350|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||69,570|
Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work overtime.
Compared with workers in all occupations, environmental engineers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012.
Employment of environmental engineers is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.
State and local governments’ concerns about water are leading to efforts to increase the efficiency of water use. This focus differs from that of wastewater treatment, for which this occupation is traditionally known.
The requirement by the federal government to clean up contaminated sites is expected to help sustain demand for these engineers’ services, particularly those who work for the government sector. In addition, wastewater treatment is becoming a larger concern in areas of the country where new methods of drilling for shale gas require the use and disposal of massive volumes of water. Environmental engineers will continue to be needed to help utilities and water treatment plants comply with any new federal or state environmental regulations.
Job prospects should be favorable because this occupation may experience a wave of retirements. A person can also improve his or her job prospects by obtaining a master’s degree in environmental engineering, an advanced degree that many employers prefer.
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