In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Environmental engineers (also called sanitary engineers) who work in public health are involved in fields such as air pollution control, waste disposal, and water treatment. They may design systems to keep drinking water supplies safe, to control pollution, to treat wastewater and sewage, and to manage potentially hazardous waste. They may help track down problems at existing facilities, and develop regulations to guide future efforts. When a developer is building a new subdivision, it is an environmental engineer who looks over the plans for the proposed water supply. These engineers also ensure that projects comply with laws and regulations. They need not only to understand the principles of design and development but also to have at least basic knowledge of pathogens,
disease vectors, toxicology, and other public health issues.
Other typical jobs include working on systems to treat wastewater from manufacturing plants, finding ways to reduce emissions from automobiles or factory smokestacks, planning for the safe disposal of dangerous substances, and finding ways to clean up contaminated sites. In the course of their work, environmental engineers interact with other experts, including health officials, architects, and building contractors. They are often based primarily in offices, but they typically spend about a quarter of their time on-site, inspecting locations or facilities. There are also environmental engineers who primarily do research on environmental control.
Education and Certification
Environmental engineers need at least a bachelor’s degree in a related engineering field, and a master’s degree in environmental engineering can lead to better employment opportunities; academic programs should be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and technology. A PhD is not essential for most environmental engineers but can open up additional possibilities, especially for those interested in research. Engineers who plan to offer their services to public or private clients need to hold a state license and to be certified as Professional Engineers (PE). Engineers who work for government agencies often need a license and PE certification, and certification is generally necessary for advancement.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Tendency to be detail-oriented and analytical
- Strong skills in math and physics
- Curiosity about science and biology
- Understanding of the workings of state or local government, including how government policies can affect engineering projects
- Ability to communicate with scientists and nonscientists in different fields
- High-level computer skills, for the use of technical design and modeling programs and data analysis
- Ability to visualize projects, such as imagining two-dimensional plans in three dimensions
In 2008, the median salary for an environmental engineer was $74,000. The top 10% earned more than $115,000, and only 10% earned $45,000 or less. More experience and more education will generally lead to higher compensation. The federal government and private industry tend to pay more than state governments, although salaries vary.
Environmental engineers work for city, county, and state governments, usually either with the health department or with a separate division focused on the environment. They also work for corporations that contract to do government work. Some work directly for a corporation in a specific industry.
Overall, opportunities for engineers should be in rough balance with the number of people looking for jobs. The prospects for environmental engineers are expected to be particularly good. With increasing attention to the nation’s infrastructure, a growing population, and an increasing emphasis
on preventing environmental problems and hazards, the need for engineers with expertise in water supply and pollution control is likely to increase.
For Further Information
- American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) www.asce.org
- American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE) www.aaee.net
- American Waterworks Association (AWWA) www.awwa.org