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Engineers are practical scientists. They solve matter-of-fact problems. They design, build, and repair things, from bridges to paperclips, DVDs to anti-lock brakes. Engineering technicians assist engineers and scientists, especially in research and development. Engineering teams are employed by most large manufacturers to build prototypes of new products and test them for safety and reliability. Technicians are employed in all fields of engineering and work under the careful supervision of engineers.

Civil engineering is a discipline that is a marriage between technology and art, or architecture. It is responsible for all the great structures of the world: skyscrapers, sports domes, dams, and bridges. Architects design buildings and advise how they should be built. Civil engineers (CEs) wear hard hats and oversee the construction. They have to know which ideas will work and which won't, before millions of dollars are spent.

While civil engineers assess strength of materials, stress loads, traffic flow, and use patterns, they also look at form and design. They like efficiency and practicality. Ideally, they create something useful that is also attractive, like a cloverleaf intersection in a highway.

Technicians work with civil engineers and architects to plan and build highways, buildings, bridges, dams, wastewater treatment systems, airports, and other large facilities. Civil engineering work is most in demand in urban areas, so the employment of CEs and technicians usually follows population growth. Their skills in building infrastructures have allowed for the growth of cities.

Technicians frequently go with engineers to the site of the new structure, then return to the office to help draw up a proposal. They work with cost estimators to figure a budget for the project. One of the technician's most important tools is the computer, especially CAD systems. CAD programs today allow a technician to “build” a structure completely, then modify it to suit new ideas and needs as they emerge. As software becomes more sophisticated and complex, technicians must keep up with the upgrades.

Numerical values are input, and formulas are calculated, resulting in determination of the materials needed.

In the case of building a bridge, civil engineers figure the weight it must bear, the amount of traffic it should hold, the wind and freezing temperatures it will likely endure, and the other stresses on it to determine the number of supports it will require and its shape and style. They must be able to foresee problems before the structure is built. To do so, they consider a hundred “what if” situations—can the structure withstand an earthquake, tornado, or prolonged subzero temperatures?—even if they are unlikely to occur.

A growing part of civil engineering work is materials testing with imaging systems, such as ultrasound and magnetic particle tests. With imaging systems, they can assess the stress on structures without having to wait until they crack or buckle.

Civil engineers and technicians must work with a host of people involved in the construction projects—clients, architects, government inspectors, surveyors, cost estimators, materials suppliers, labor representatives, subcontractors—so their people skills should be as carefully developed as their math and science skills. The ability to communicate clearly is a must.

Bridge Building

Remember how much fun it was to build things out of Legos and popsicle sticks when you were a kid? A few lucky contestants can do it again. The Illinois Institute of Technology sponsors a yearly bridge-building contest for high school students across the globe.

Each year, the engineering department at IIT draws up a different set of specifications for a bridge and sends them to participating regions. The materials they choose are inexpensive and easy to obtain. The design is up to participants and their model must pass a rigorous test: remain standing after twenty-five kilograms of pressure is applied. (It is suggested that bridges not have far to fall.) Regional winners may advance to the international contest, which is held in a different host city each year.

For more information, check out the Web site: http://iit.edu/~hsbridge.

Education and Training

Math and physics are required for all engineering technicians. Those wanting to become civil engineering technicians should enroll in a two-year course at college or technical school, which emphasizes structural engineering. Some of the typical courses are methods of construction, materials testing, strength of materials, traffic engineering, and reinforced concrete design.


The industry average for all engineering technicians is $35,000 per year. Civil engineering technicians with large architectural firms may expect to make more.


The job opportunities for civil engineering technicians are expected to increase over the next ten years. Competitive pressure will force manufacturing facilities and product designs to change more rapidly than in the past. Population growth will require more highways, airports, and water treatment facilities.

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