How to become a civil engineer
Here we will explore what a career in civil engineering involves, what qualifications are needed, the various learning and training routes you can pursue, employability tips, how to gain professional status and much more in this complete guide to becoming a civil engineer.
What is civil engineering?
Civil engineering is the design and development of everything that’s built around us, including key infrastructure such as roads, railways, hospitals, water and power supply and much more.
Civil engineers are the scientific minds behind the way our towns and cities work. Combining their practical and theoretical knowledge of engineering, they are heavily involved in the planning, management, budgeting and analysis of projects, big and small.
Civil engineers can choose to specialise in a particular area, such as buildings, coastal and marine, highways and transportation, rail or waste management.
Civil engineering is a highly rewarding and varied profession, ranging from theoretical planning to hands-on practical aspects of projects – civil engineers can feel great pride looking at skyscrapers and bridges, saying ‘I built that’.
What qualifications do I need to become a civil engineer?
There are several qualification and training routes to become a civil engineer. You could achieve the required qualifications by completing a college or university course, or you could apply for a civil engineering apprenticeship. Alternatively, if you already have relevant work experience you could apply directly to an employer, or if you have useful transferable skills, these could be used to gain work experience in the field.
You can study for a foundation degree, higher national diploma or degree in civil engineering.
A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering usually lasts for three years (four in Scotland), while a master’s will take an extra year and is often combined into a four-year course (five in Scotland). Many courses include a year-long work placement which can be useful for making industry contacts to help find work after you finish your studies.
Many universities specialise in particular areas of civil engineering, such as:
- Structural engineering
- Environmental engineering
- Coastal engineering
To study civil engineering at university, you will usually need:
- Five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades 9 – 4 (A* - C) including English and maths
- Three A levels (or equivalent) including maths and a science subject
- An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject for postgraduate study.
If you already have an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in a relevant subject such as maths, geology or science, you may be able to retrain as a civil engineer.
Find out more about what to expect from university here.
You can take a higher national certificate (HNC) or diploma (HND) at college, which may help you find a job as a trainee civil engineer. You will do further training on the job to fully qualify.
Many colleges and some universities offer:
- Level 4 HNC in civil engineering
- Level 5 HND in construction and the built environment
- Foundation degrees (level 5) in civil engineering.
You can study full-time or part-time. After completing a HND or foundation degree you can go straight into a job, but there are often opportunities to take a one or two-year top-up degree to become professionally qualified. You could do this independently or supported by your employer.
For a HNC, HND or foundation degree you’ll usually need one of the following:
- A BTEC Level 3 Diploma or Extended Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment (Civil Engineering)
- 1 – 2 A levels (or equivalent) including maths.
Apprenticeships allow you to work and be paid while gaining a qualification – they are a great way to build up technical skills, industry knowledge and gain practical experience.
Here are some options for those interested in an apprenticeship in civil engineering:
Level 3 apprenticeship
Level 3 apprenticeships are equivalent to A levels, so you will typically need 5 GCSEs (or equivalent) including English, maths and a science to be eligible.
You will usually spend one day a week at college and the rest with your employer.
Level 3 Railway Engineering Design Technician and Level 3 Civil Engineering Technician apprenticeships are both excellent options for starting your career in civil engineering, allowing you to start work as a civil engineering technician.
Find out more about what an apprenticeship involves here.
Higher and degree apprenticeships
A higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship involves working while studying for a level 4-6 qualification, usually a HNC, HND, foundation or bachelor’s degree. They typically take 5 years to complete. To be eligible, you should already have a level 3 apprenticeship, relevant BTEC or A levels.
Level 4 (HNC) Construction Site Engineering Technician Apprenticeship and Level 6 Civil Engineer Degree Apprenticeship are two good examples of higher apprenticeships.
You can find out more about civil engineering apprenticeships from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) here.
Becoming professionally qualified
If you’re training or learning to become a civil engineer, you’ll want to be professionally qualified. There are three types of professional qualification:
- Engineering technician (EngTech)
- Incorporated engineer (IEng)
- Chartered engineer (CEng).
Civil engineers gain professional qualifications from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE), and it shows you meet certain industry standards, boosts your career and salary prospects, and increases your chances of finding work abroad as it’s internationally recognised.
If you have a level 3 qualification you are eligible to achieve the EngTech qualification, becoming a professional engineering technician.
Undergraduates with an accredited engineering degree are eligible to start the process to become incorporated engineers, and graduates with an accredited master’s degree can work towards chartered status.
There are other ways to become professionally qualified – head over to ICE to find out more.
Tips on becoming a civil engineer
- Do your research. As you can see from the above, there are lots of routes into civil engineering. Consider which would be best for you – are you naturally academic? A degree may be best. Lacking qualifications? Research your options at college. Prefer hands-on learning? Take a look at an apprenticeship.
- Join ICE. If you’re a student or an apprentice, become a member. It’s free, will grant you access to professional training and qualification opportunities and is great for networking.
- Attend a civil engineering open event. It allows you to meet like-minded people, ask experts any questions you may have and provide insight into what a civil engineering career is really like.
- Get some work experience. Whether this is helping a family member or friend out on site, or undertaking a year-long work placement, work experience is the perfect way to build your skills and gain industry contacts.
What are the different types of civil engineers?
Generally, there are two types of civil engineer: consulting engineers and contracting engineers. Consulting engineers tend to be more office-based, and are responsible for the design work of projects, using a range of computer software to undertake complex calculations and develop detailed designs. Contracting engineers are based on construction sites, overseeing the implementation of the designs, with a focus on managing people and budgets to ensure the project is completed smoothly.
What skills should you have?
Useful skills and knowledge to highlight and develop for the role of a civil engineer include:
- Knowledge of engineering science and technology
- Knowledge of building and construction
- Design skills and creativity
- Excellent verbal communication skills
- Critical thinking and reasoning skills
- IT skills, and CAD knowledge (if necessary)
- Ability to work to deadlines and within budgets
- Negotiating, supervisory and leadership skills
- Ability to manage complex projects.