Is your idea of fun sitting at the computer for hours constructing your very own SimCity subdivision? Are you fascinated by documentaries on the building of Hoover dam? Do you have a knack for solving complex mathematical problems? Do you know what The Big Dig is?
If you can answer yes to three of the four questions, you could be an engineer in the making - the making of California communities.
Currently demand is good for a wide variety of engineers involved in construction projects as large as dams and as small as studio apartments. Northern California firms have been advertising for civil, structural and electrical engineers who can handle a variety of projects - wineries, subdivisions, earthquake retrofitting, environmental remediation, structural design integration, hydraulic projects and commercial development.
"The job market is not as good as it was three years ago, but it's better than a year ago," reports David Bonneville, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California. Help-wanted ads in the organization's newsletter topped 20 at the height of the dot-com boom, slumped to 8 or 9, and now have jumped back up to 15 or 16. At his own firm, Degenkolb Engineers, one of the premier bay area earthquake retrofit specialists, hiring is expected to be modest (adding less than five new positions to a staff of 140 engineers.)
Like other industries, engineering firms are exercising caution when it comes to hiring. "Nobody wants to have staff sitting around with nothing to do. Noboby wants to have to face staff reductions," says Bonneville.
Also like other industries, overseas outsourcing is expected to have a major effect on employment. "As in any industry, it (outsourcing) happens first at the lower skill levels," Bonneville notes. That means CAD operators (computer-assisted drafters) are in greater danger of losing their jobs to offshoring than engineers. While Degenkolb does not yet outsource, Bonneville does not rule out the possibility, especially since all the major international firms already do it.
Reaction to an article he wrote for the organization's newsletter describing offshoring's inevitable effect on engineer was greater than normal. Most engineers agreed with his prediction that offshoring is a reality that is here to stay, adding that their firms were dabbling in outsourcing as well.
"Every year, I take our young engineers aside . . . I want them to know if they do routine things, their careers are going to be short. That routine things can be done with much less skill for much less money," Bonneville points out. "I always urge them to be specialists and consultants and take on things that may not be as much fun, but will build a skill in a needed area."
Bonneville is uncertain about the future job market in engineering. While offshoring will take its toll, colleges have been graduating fewer engineers, which could translate into less competition for future vacancies.
Here is a look at some of the specialties in the field:
Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and water supply and sewage systems. Considered one of the oldest engineering disciplines, civil engineering encompasses many specialties. The major ones are structural, water resources, construction, transportation and geotechnical engineering.
Many civil engineers hold supervisory or administrative positions, from supervisor of a construction site to city engineer. Others may work in design, construction, research or teaching. Spurred by general population growth and an increased emphasis on infrastructure and security, more civil engineers will be needed to design and construct safe and higher-capacity transportation, water supply, and pollution control systems, and large buildings and building complexes. They also play a key role in repairing or replacing existing roads, bridges, and other public structures.
Because construction and related industries - including those providing design services - employ many civil engineers, opportunities vary by geographic area and may decrease during economic slowdowns, when construction often is curtailed.
From giant electric power generators to the global positioning system, which has revolutionized navigation for everything from automobiles and airplanes to hikers and high-tech weapons, electrical engineers are responsible for a wide range of technologies. They often design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment, including broadcast and communications systems; motors, machinery controls, lighting, and wiring in buildings, vehicles, radar and navigation systems; and power generating, controlling, and transmission devices used by electric utilities.
Electrical engineers specialize in different areas such as power grids, communications, equipment manufacturing, or a specialty within one of those areas - industrial robot control systems or aviation electronics, for example. Electrical engineers design new products, write performance specifications, and develop maintenance schedules. They also test equipment, solve operating problems, and estimate the time and cost of engineering projects.
The number of job openings resulting from employment growth and the need to replace electrical engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force is expected to equal the supply of graduates.
Continuing education is critical for electrical engineers, and those who fail to keep up with the rapid changes in technology risk becoming more susceptible to layoffs or, at a minimum, more likely to be passed over for advancement.
The Natural Choice
Using the principles of biology and chemistry, environmental engineers develop solutions to problems affecting the ecosystem. They are involved in water and air pollution control, recycling, waste disposal, and public health issues. Environmental engineers conduct hazardous-waste management studies in which they evaluate the significance of hazards, offer analysis on treatment and containment, and develop regulations to prevent and deal with mishaps.
They design municipal water supply and industrial wastewater treatment systems, as well as conducting research on proposed environmental projects, analyzing scientific data, and performing quality control checks.
Environmental engineers are heavily involved with local and international environmental issues, including the protection of wildlife. They study and attempt to minimize the effects of acid rain, global warming, vehicle emissions, and ozone depletion. Many environmental engineers work as consultants, helping their clients comply with regulations and clean up hazardous sites.
Environmental engineering graduates should have favorable job opportunities, with much of the expected growth due to the emergence of this relatively new occupation as a widely recognized engineering specialty. A shift in emphasis toward preventing problems rather than controlling those that already exist, as well as increasing public health concerns, also will spur demand for environmental specialists. However, political factors determine the job outlook for environmental engineers more than that of any other specialty.
Any relaxation of environmental regulations could reduce employment options.
All engineering positions require at least a bachelor's degree and a solid understanding of the practical applications of technology, design, construction, mathematics, CAD, as well as good communications skills.
Finally, all those hours of creative play with SimCity may ultimately pay off in the real world. It seems that originality - the ability to come up with unusual or clever solutions to a problem - is a particularly prized trait in this highly creative field.
(Note: In case you couldn't place The Big Dig, it's Boston's massive project to put the city's freeways underground - the largest public works project in history.)
For more information on careers in engineering, contact:
- EarthWorks-Jobs.com - Links to jobs in energy, oil, mining, geoscience, environmental, agriculture, forestry, ecology, meteorology, oceanography, hydrology, soil, and related subjects.
- EngCen.com - Engineering Central, includes job listings and resources for engineers. Jobseekers can upload and edit their resumes in the site's database. Click on "Resources" for links to all engineering disciplines/fields.
- IEEE.org - The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is a nonprofit, technical professional association. Their website features news and information, links, and a career center. Annual dues are $147.
- NSPE.org - The National Society of Professional Engineers is a membership organization of engineering professionals and licensed engineers. Click on "Employment" for job searches. Introductory dues are $20 for students, $110 for recent engineering graduates, and $220 for other members (dues may vary by state).