Civil engineering is a professional engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, ranging across public works such as roads, bridges, canals, dams, airports, sewerage systems, pipelines, the structural components of buildings, and railways.
Civil engineering is traditionally broken into many sub-disciplines. Civil engineering takes place in the public sector from municipal through to national governments, and in the private sector from individual homeowners through to international companies.
General Civil Engineers work closely with surveyors and specialised Civil Engineers to design grading, drainage, pavement, water supply, sewer service, dams, electricity and communications supply. It is also referred to as site engineering, which primarily focuses on converting a tract of land from one usage to another.
Site Engineers spend time visiting project sites, meeting with stakeholders, and preparing construction plans. Civil Engineers apply the principles of geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, environmental engineering, transportation engineering and construction engineering to residential, commercial, industrial and public works projects of all sizes and levels of construction.
Civil Engineers typically do the following:
- Analyse long range plans, survey reports, maps, and other data to plan and design projects.
- Consider construction costs, government regulations, potential environmental hazards, and other factors during the planning and risk-analysis stages of a project.
- Compile and submit permit applications to municipal, provincial and national government bodies verifying that projects comply with various regulations.
- Oversee and analyse the results of soil testing to determine the adequacy and strength of foundations.
- Analyse the results of tests on building materials, such as concrete, wood, asphalt, or steel, for use in particular projects.
- Prepare cost estimates for materials, equipment, or labour to determine a project’s economic feasibility.
- Use design software to plan and design transportation systems, hydraulic systems, and structures in line with industry and government standards.
- Perform or oversee surveying operations to establish building locations, site layouts, reference points, grades, and elevations to guide construction.
- Manage the repair, maintenance, and replacement of public and private infrastructure.
Civil Engineers must often present their findings to the public on topics such as bid proposals, environmental impact, or property descriptions.
Many civil engineers hold supervisory or administrative positions ranging from supervisor of a construction site to a city engineer, public works director, and city manager. As supervisors, they are tasked with ensuring that safe work practices are followed at construction sites.
Other civil engineers work in design, construction, research, and teaching. Civil engineers work with others on projects and may be assisted by civil engineering technicians.
Civil engineers work on complex projects, and they can achieve job satisfaction in seeing the project reach completion. They usually specialise in one of several areas.
Civil engineers generally work in a variety of locations and conditions, depending on the type of project they are involved in. It is common for them to split their time between office-based work and working outdoors at construction sites, where they monitor operations or solve problems on site. Most work full time.
Civil engineers who function as project managers may work from their vehicles from time to time, particularly if they are working on several projects at once. Many civil engineers work for government agencies in government office buildings or facilities. Occasionally, civil engineers travel abroad to work on large engineering projects in other countries.
On the other hand, construction engineers may spend much of their time outdoors at construction sites monitoring operations or solving onsite problems. Some jobs may require relocation to different areas and offices or jobsite trailers.
Structural engineering – focuses on designing the ‘bones and muscles’ that create the form and shape of man-made structures. Structural Engineers calculate the stability, strength and rigidity of built structures for buildings and non-building structures such as bridges. Structural designs are integrated with designs from other disciplines, including architects and building services (ie. HVAC, lighting, elevators, fire and so forth). Structural Engineers also often take on site supervision roles during the construction of projects.
Geotechnical engineering – studies rock and soil supporting civil engineering systems, incorporating knowledge from soil science, materials science, mechanics, and hydraulics and applying these to design foundations, retaining walls, and other structures – safely and economically.
Transportation engineering – concerned with moving people and goods efficiently, safely, and in a manner that stimulates a vibrant community. It involves specifying, designing, constructing, and maintaining transportation infrastructure such as roads and highways, rail systems, airports, coastal and inland ports and mass transit systems. Tansportation design, transportation planning, traffic engineering, some aspects of urban engineering, queueing theory, pavement engineering, Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), and infrastructure management can all fall within the ambit of a transportation engineer.
Municipal engineering – involves specifying, designing, constructing, and maintaining streets, sidewalks, water supply networks, sewers, street lighting, municipal solid waste management and disposal, bulk materials storage depots, public parks and even cycling infrastructure. Municipal engineers can also specialise in underground utility networks, such as the civil portion of the local distribution networks of electricity and telecommunications services (ie. conduits and access chambers) and can also be called upon to optimise waste collection and bus service networks.
Water Engineering – also known as water resource engineering deals with the collection and management of water as a natural resource. It brings together knowledge from hydrology, environmental science, meteorology, conservation, and resource management to predict and manage both the quality and the quantity of water sources, underground (aquifers) and above ground (lakes, rivers, and streams), to meet population and industrial demand.
Hydraulic Engineering – deals with the flow and conveyance of fluids, most often water. Hydraulic engineers design pipelines, water supply networks, drainage facilities (including bridges, dams, channels, culverts, levees and storm sewers), and canals. They use the concepts of fluid pressure, fluid statics, fluid dynamics, hydraulics, and others, to do so.
Civil engineering systems – promotes the use of systems thinking to manage complexity and change in civil engineering within its wider public context, taking a holistic, coherent view of the relationships between all the factors that contribute to successful projects, while paying attention to technical detail. It helps to integrate the entire civil engineering project life cycle from conception, through planning, designing, making and operating and continues through to decommissioning at the end of the project’s lifecycle.
Project Management – is about achieving all the project goals within the given constraints, using project documentation that is created at the beginning of the development process. The primary constraints of any engineering project are scope, time, quality and budget
In South Africa, a bachelor’s degree in engineering represents the first step towards professional registration as an engineer. The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) accredits the degree programme offered by those universities and universities of technology that have engineering faculties. After completing an ECSA accredited degree programme, the engineer must satisfy a range of requirements, including work experience and a professional review, before being eligible for registration as a professional. Once registered, the engineering practitioner is designated as a professional engineer, technologist or technician.
This professional registration represents recognition from ECSA’s committees that you meet the minimum requirements expected of a professional person. The professional recognition you receive by becoming a member of ECSA instils a sense of confidence in the mind of the public, assuring them that your competence has been assessed by other professionals who are knowledgeable in your field of expertise. (“Register – Why Register – ECSA”) Engineers who are not professionally registered cannot sign design documents, so this is a key component of your growth and development as an engineer.
The ECSA is a co-signatory to the international “Washington Accord”, “Sydney Accord” and “Dublin Accord” agreements in which the registering bodies of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland recognise each other’s accredited university and university of technology degrees in engineering, confirming that your academic qualification and professional registration are internationally acceptable. This enhances your marketability.
This is the foundation for any career in engineering, and is characterised by an understanding and working knowledge of science. Civil engineering students gain these foundations in their undergraduate and postgraduate education.
The day-to-day duties and routines of a civil engineer are rooted in the principles of mathematics and you will need a thorough understanding of algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and geometry.
Written communication skills
From technicians to project managers, Civil Engineers at every level must communicate via written reports and correspondence, clearly and concisely. Civil Engineers also deal with other professionals from various backgrounds such as architects, urban planners, regional planners, and other technicians and tradespeople. They may also be required to communicate with elected officials, citizens, and others who may not have technical backgrounds in engineering or science. This means that Civil Engineers must be able to write in an easily understandable and straightforward manner as is appropriate for their audience.
Oral communication skills
The same applies for oral communication. Civil engineers must listen to clients, officials, team members, and other skilled workers to grasp their concerns and requests effectively and must be able to explain complex technical information concisely to address these concerns.
The responsibility for the outcomes of projects falls on the Civil Engineers who manage them, making it important to demonstrate significant leadership skills when overseeing planners, technicians, technologists, surveyors, and contractors. Leadership involves being able to plan and prioritise, manage time effectively, delegate duties, make decisions with confidence and authority, and keep team members motivated and engaged.
One of the main duties of a registered professional Civil Engineer is to monitor and evaluate the progress of work completed at a jobsite and to make sure that staff are following design documents, project plans, and other rules and regulations. They are also the only ones who can sign design documents for infrastructure projects. Because professionally registered engineers hold this responsibility for the official documents and because they often work on multiple projects at once, they must be able to organise project information, manage team members, and allocate resources appropriately.
Analytical skills are vital. During the different stages of a project, engineering practitioners will encounter several variables that will influence the outcome or change the progress of a project. This is when they need to harness their skills, education, and experience to find safe and cost-effective solutions to the issues that arise, while keeping the project on track.
Civil engineers must consider the available information, conflicting goals from different parties involved, professional ethics, financial responsibilities, and safety concerns when making decisions. They need to have confidence in themselves and in their team for providing accurate and useful information to make decisions that are clear and effective. When mistakes are made, they should take responsibility, learn from the mistake, and guide the project on a new path.
As technology evolves and the needs of growing populations change, Civil Engineers also need to continually strengthen their existing skillsets and spend time honing and developing new ones. Each new skill Civil Engineers master could help them land their dream job or rise the ranks in their existing organization, while ensuring they have a positive impact on the societies and communities in which they operate.
Formal University Degree Options:
- Bachelor of Science (Engineering) (BSc Eng Honours)
- Master of Science in a specialised Engineering field (MSc Eng)
- PhD of Science in a specialised Engineering field (PhD Eng)
University of Technology Degree Options:
The following universities have civil engineering faculties:
- University of Cape Town
- Witwatersrand University
- University of Pretoria
- Stellenbosch University
- University of Johannesburg
- University of KwaZulu-Nata
- University of South Africa
- Nelson Mandela University
The following universities of technology have civil engineering faculties:
- Johannesburg University of Technology
- Walter Sisulu University of Technology
- Vaal University of Technology
- Tshwane University of Technology
- Central University of Technology
- Cape Peninsula University of Technology
- Vaal University of Technology
- Mangosuthu University of Technology
- Durban University of Technology
The following is a list of the top 30 employers of SAICE’s members:
- Zutari (Pty) Ltd
- Royal HaskoningDHV
- SMEC (Pty) Ltd
- AECOM (Pty) Ltd
- GIBB (Pty) Ltd
- eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality
- Hatch Africa (Pty) Ltd
- Eskom (Pty) Ltd
- WSP Group
- WBHO (Pty) Ltd
- South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL)
- Bigen Group (Pty) Ltd
- BVi Consulting Engineers (Pty) Ltd
- JG Afrika (Pty) Ltd
- Aveng Group
- Knight Piesold (Pty) Ltd
- Stefanutti Stocks (Pty) Ltd
- Arup (Pty) Ltd
- Jones & Wagener (Pty) Ltd
- UWP Consulting (Pty) Ltd
- SNA Civil & Structural Engineers (Pty) Ltd
- Kantey & Templer (Pty) Ltd
- EOH Holdings (Pty) Ltd
- HHO Africa (Pty) Ltd
- NAKO Group (Pty) Ltd
- Bergstan (Pty) Ltd
- Bosch Holdings (Pty) Ltd
- Group Five (Pty) Ltd
This article was developed by SAICE – The South African Institution of Civil Engineering
The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) is an industry body that aims to advance professional knowledge and improves the practice of civil engineering among members. Through industry leading knowledge and information, SAICE enables members to provide the community with environmentally sustainable solutions. Specialized educational platforms are accessed to members with skills which advance the technical, managerial and communication landscape. Several benefits are at the disposal of students and young graduates including ECSA membership reduction and the facilitation of professional registration on behalf of ECSA. This includes interviews and facilitation of the exam process. Other benefits include access to the bookshop, the EngAge Digital Digest, a bi-weekly newsletter, and a monthly magazine. Students also have the opportunity to network and learn from industry professionals through local and virtual events and webinars.
Link to the SAICE website: www.saice.org.za