Public Works Engineer

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Public Works Engineer


Many important things in our lives including roads, bridges, water supply, airports, dams and buildings that we take for granted are the products of public works engineering. For example, water and sewage treatment plants, which provide our local municipalities with safe drinking water require the expertise of a public works engineer. Public works engineers, sometimes called civil or municipal engineers plan, design and supervise the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of a wide variety of public infrastructure facilities, such as sanitary sewers and water mains. They also gather and analyze data on municipal projects and prepare reports. Other duties include construction specifications, construction administration and periodic construction observation or inspection. Being one of the oldest sectors of the engineering profession, public works engineers affect everyone's public lives. If it were not for their important and necessary work, our towns and cities would have no sound infrastructure.

Most public works engineers specialize in a particular area once they become established. Areas such as road construction, the environment, hydraulics and transportation are a few different options. Nevertheless, all specialized public works engineers perform similar duties. They must meet with architects, lawyers and contractors in order to make sure that design plans are safe and will withstand a number of conditional variables. Safety is one of the most important issues that public works engineers must contend with. They create engineering plans on computers which test and predict possible problems with a structure and in this, they generate solutions. Although most work takes place on the computer, most public works engineers travel to the sites to see their work in progress and to fulfil the stereotype that many people have of an engineer with a hard hat, walking around a site.

Public works engineers use both traditional and high-tech tools like Intelligent Transportation Systems and Smart Systems, to solve problems and meet challenges such as pollution, traffic congestion, urban development, community planning, drinking water and energy needs. They research and evaluate each project to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems while still maintaining recognized standards.
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  Interests and Skills  
Public works engineers must be safety conscious and practical in decision making. They possess good communication skills because they work closely with contractors, architects and clients. Public works engineers can analyze data, review calculations and prepare cost estimates and have the ability to visualize three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional drawings. They must be dedicated to their projects, be creative in their designs and be as knowledgeable as possible in the engineering field. Finally, they should enjoy being innovative, doing work that requires precision and making solid decisions.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Plan, design, develop and manage a variety of major public works engineering projects including the construction and repair of buildings, roads, airports, sewers, railways, bridges, dams, ports and water distribution and sanitation systems
  • Consult with professionals and government officials
  • Study, evaluate and investigate construction and land development sites
  • Work within the guidelines of the local government authority
  • Get design plans approved by relevant authorities
  • Prepare cost estimates and contract documents for the work
  • Tender the contract and find contractors to do the work
  • Supervise and monitor construction to ensure the structure is built in accordance with the construction drawings and contract
  • Work with professionals from other fields such as science, engineering, sales, marketing and management
  • Ensure construction standards are met
  • May attend construction site meetings with the contractor and client
  • May specialize in building and structural inspection, surveying and municipal planning
  • Working environments for public works engineers are as varied as their projects. Most spend the majority of their time in offices on the computer, making mathematical calculations, and making phone calls. They also get to travel to project work sites and they sometimes must testify in front of a public hearing. They usually work anywhere between eight and 10 hours each day and longer hours may be required if there are any emergencies. They often work with a team that may include professionals from other engineering and scientific disciplines, contractors, project owners, architects, bankers, lawyers or government officials.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Public works engineers work in the public sector, mostly for the municipal government. They are employed by various government agencies such as the departments of transportation and the environment. Some public works engineers are self-employed and contract their engineering services to the government.

  Long Term Career Potential  
With experience, public works engineers can become project managers and eventually advance to the management of very large projects. They can eventually be the chief engineers on municipal projects like the design of a skyscraper. Some experienced public works engineers may decide to branch off on their own and establish their own construction or consulting companies. Those with PhDs might teach at a university or conduct research.

  Educational Paths  
Due to the nature of the job, public works engineers require a university degree in civil engineering or in a related field of engineering. They must also become registered as a professional engineer (PEng) within an association of professional engineers to secure employment and practice in their field. Some public works engineers also get master's degrees in a specific area, such as the environment.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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