What Does a Civil Engineer Do? | Roles, Skills, Advice

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Group of engineer architect and foreman officer meeting about construction working plan on building site

Looking to enter a career in Engineering but haven’t settled on a specialisation? Ever considered what it’s like to work as a civil engineer?

To give you more insight, we interviewed a civil engineer to help you get an idea of what type of work you would be involved in, the various projects civil engineers undertake and what a day in their life is like. 

Let’s get right into it! 

Meet Afrida
What is a Civil Engineer?
Steps to Becoming a Civil Engineer
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Civil Engineers

Meet Afrida

Afrida is a Civil Engineer at Aurecon, a Design Consultant, and she’s on the Roads and Civils team. She has worked there for 5 years and has been involved in major infrastructure projects like the Newcastle Light Rail, Westconnex 3A and the first stage of the Parramatta Light Rail. 

She is also involved in the Aurecon Limelight Committee where young professionals within Aurecon help younger professionals with personal and professional development.

Studies and Experience 

Afrida studied Engineering at UNSW, which is a four year degree. As part of her studies, she was required to complete a work placement which she did with NSW Public Works.

During her time there, she worked with the Emergency Engineering Management team and developed the Unstable Brickwork Awareness Material project for emergency service first responders. 

What made you want to work in this industry? 

Afrida says Civil Engineering was a perfect way for her to blend her interests in maths and science.

Civil Engineer - Quote

What is a Civil Engineer?

A civil engineer helps to design and construct public facilities and infrastructure. This often includes projects on roads, bridges, buildings, tunnels, public transport, airports or water and sewage systems.

From huge and visible projects to those that are hidden away, civil engineers are at the heart of our built environment helping to create spaces that are functional and help communities to thrive!

Civil engineers are needed across a wide range of sectors and there are various places where you can specialise in. From project design, planning and construction processes, civil engineers will collaborate with surveyors, construction managers, architects and urban planners.

They often work in teams and spend time designing and planning projects, preparing proposals and addressing client’s needs. 

Roles and Responsibilities

Afrida describes her roles and responsibilities as any other office desk job as she is more involved in designing stages rather than on-site work. “There’s a whole lot of emails, meetings — sometimes there’s report writing or design work too so you’ll get into the design software and make progress on those,” Afrida says. 

She mentions that a lot of her job is creating drawings and constructions as she goes. Sometimes she will work on a concept design and pricing for a project. If it progresses to the next stage, the next team will add more details to it.

Afrida notes that she works with a lot of different people, “You work with different people and teams like the design team, payment team or your technical team. So you can be working with lighting, street design, electrical — all the different people you need to put it all together.”

Civil engineers are involved in construction methods, drafting and interpreting construction methods, materials and quality standards in the office. However, they can also work onsite, organising and directing site labour, delivering construction materials or establishing a detailed program for the coordination of site activities.  

Which industries can this career be found in?

As a civil engineer, you would be able to find work in both the public and private sector. Afrida says, “You can work for the council, government, a construction company or for a design consultant. You could also be in planning.

“For me, I’m a part of design so we do concept, design work, planning work and design for construction. Typically, I work on transport projects, whether it’s light rail or motorway upgrade — there’s a whole range of different things. From working on existing infrastructure or you could be planning for the construction of completely new infrastructure.” 

We also asked Afrida if there was a difference between working in the public and private sector. Afrida said, “The work is different because it’s two different industries. When I was in New South Wales public works, I was in the state agency management for engineering services whereas the role I’m currently in is more design and construction.”

Afrida notes that in the private sector, you would be involved in pitching and winning work. Whereas in the government sector, you are providing for the government’s needs rather than needing to source and attain work.  

Characteristics and Qualities

Civil Engineer - Characteristics

JobOutlook outlines the following skills as important for a civil engineer to have: 

  • Mathematics
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Operations Analysis
  • Critical Thinking
  • Active Learning

Afrida also adds, “I think I would say the two skills that are not thought of when you think of civil engineering are communication and management.

“That’s really important because you are always working with or in a team or dates you have to hit to successfully deliver a project. Program scheduling becomes really important, and I think people don’t think about that.”

Time management is also a vital aspect of working as a civil engineer, especially when there are multiple deadlines that need to be met.

She says, “If you’re on multiple projects, you’ll have different demands and deadlines which you need to manage. So you’re either managing yourself, or you’re managing your team. Work as a civil engineer means you are working in a vertical team, but also horizontal teams with different disciplines so you need a strong ability to work in a team.” 

Steps to Becoming a Civil Engineer

What should you study?

To become a civil engineer, you would need to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a major in Civil Engineering would be preferable. Although if you don’t, depending on what sector of Civil Engineering you choose to work in, it is likely that you would have transferable skills from other majors too! 

Most states require engineers to have a Professional Engineer’s licence which you can gain after practising and working as an engineer within the industry. 

Here are some universities you should check out to specialise in Civil Engineering:

How long does it take to become a Civil Engineer?

As the only qualification would be a Bachelor’s degree, it will generally take four years for you to complete your studies and start working as a civil engineer. 

For Afrida, she graduated from UNSW and applied for internships before landing a graduate role with Aurecon where she slowly worked her way up. While applying for jobs, she kept an open mind as she was keen to get experience and to get to know the industry rather than limiting herself and her options!

Industry Knowledge

As a civil engineer, you would need to be familiar with a range of software depending on how you specialise and what programs are favoured by the sector you work in. Afrida says that a lot of software now incorporates the physics and mathematics involved in civil engineering although there will be times where you need to do that yourself. 

Afrida emphasises that AutoCAD is vital to work as a Civil Engineer, “AutoCAD is something everyone uses even though there may be other softwares. There’s also different softwares that each discipline will use too, road designers will use 2D modelling software but if you are working with structures you might use programs like Revit.

Geotechnical teams and hydrology models will also have their own programs — so there are various softwares and it’s always changing but the good news is that there are also a lot of software now that puts all the different files into one so that you can have a look at the project as a whole.” 

What will this career look like in the future?

Afrida talks about ongoing changes and upgrades occurring in cities within Australia and NSW in particular saying, “There’s so much growth and so much happening. We have the metro, the airport, highways, motorways, freight upgrades and regional upgrades — there’s some major changes happening to the city. We are trying to change the whole makeup of the city from an Eastern CBD focus to a three-city focus.

“So you’ll have Sydney City, and then Parramatta and the West with developing airports towards Liverpool and Penrith. So it’s an amazing transformation of the biggest city in Australia and there’s a lot of opportunities and things to take on.” 

How in-demand is this career? 

According to JobOutlook, the future growth is very strong. Due to the ongoing upgrades to infrastructure and growth in population as we move into more rural and regional areas, civil engineers are in high demand as they are central to building our physical spaces. 

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise? 

Civil engineering is a very broad discipline and as a result there is a variety of options for how you choose to grow and specialise.

Afrida says, “There are so many different areas you can go into but you can split it into technical and managerial. So you either specialise and become an expert in a technical field or you can become a manager, managing projects, people and teams. And that’s across all the different areas you can go into as well!”

Salary 

Annual Salary Future Growth Skill Level Rating
$102,000+ Very strong over the next 5 years Very high skill

The Future of this Industry

Working in the Roads and Civils team and being involved in the Transport sector, Afrida immediately thinks of technological developments in transport.

“Everyone is looking at autonomous vehicles, which is actually not that far off. They’re already starting to look at policies and things to integrate them into the current systems and I think the future would be about making more efficient use of existing infrastructure while working from home and the different patterns of travel it will impact. 

“You might not need as many infrastructure upgrades if more people are working from home or a population who works part-time from home. So there’s a lot of shifts in the way we move.” 

There has also been a shift to a sustainability focus with electric vehicles or facilitating public transport. Afrida adds that there is a focus on more pedestrian spaces and taking cars out of it.

“With the light rail projects, metro and things like that, it’s been moving in a very exciting direction. Also, safety and accessibility for all users is another focus for the near future so the industry isn’t just necessarily about building a new road or building a new bridge.” 

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

Afrida says the best thing about working as a civil engineer is working in teams and the various projects she gets to be involved in.

She says, “I like working in teams with different people. There’s always something new happening — so you’ll work on a project with the team and then go to the next project and work with a completely different team. I got to work on the light rail and then on a concept design for a town centre upgrade, so it’s very varied.”

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

Afrida laughs, “When you have a deadline, or different deadlines at the one time, it can get a bit stressful. You are under time pressure so you feel like you can’t do your best work and we always want to do the best we can.

“When you have different departments and different people asking for things and it all starts happening at once, it can be overwhelming.”

Advice for Aspiring Civil Engineers

“It’s a lot broader than people think it is. So keep an open mind while you are finding out more about it and when you are stepping into the industry,” Afrida shares.

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career? 

“I probably would have wanted to get to talk to a few more people in the different areas like government, construction and design just to get more information on what it’s like working in these three different fields. Once I got in, I realised how different each one is whereas when I started off, I didn’t really think about that,” she explains. 

Why should people consider taking on this career? 

Because it’s fun!” Afrida says, “You get to attend different projects, there’s different people to meet and right now is a very exciting time in Australia.”

Afrida adds, “It’s meaningful as well, to be involved in creating projects that completely revitalise or redevelop cities. You could be involved with water treatment, utilities or in facilitating community through services or the physical layout and design of the area.”

Job Flexibility 

Afrida says job flexibility is largely dependent on your workflow and what sector you are working in. “If you’re working on-site, obviously you may not have great work flexibility because you have to be there and sometimes you might be called out to site unexpectedly.

“For me, I generally have meetings all day so those will be fixed but there’s still a lot of flexibility. You can work early and finish early, or you can work late and finish late. Or if you had to work late for a couple of days in a row to meet a deliverable, then you might be able to take a day off the next week. So there’s a lot of flexibility and that’s becoming more normalised in the industry as well.” 

Much of the constraints on job flexibility will be dependent on deadlines, although there’s room for flexibility on how you organise your time. 

What is the workplace culture like? 

Afrida says, “I can only speak for where I work because each company has a different culture, but I think Aurecon has a good culture. We very much have a focus on teams and making sure everyone is okay.

“You could have someone really stressed out, whether it’s due to the workload, the current lockdowns we try to check up on everyone. There’s also always a place for fun which is really important when you are trying to deliver a project.” 

She also notes that the overall supportive culture makes it easier for teams and individuals to contribute their ideas or to discuss flexible working hours. 


Tiffany Fong is currently completing a double degree in Media and Communications with Law at Macquarie University. She currently contributes to the university zine, Grapeshot where she enjoys writing feature articles, commentary on current affairs or whatever weird interest that has taken over her mind during that month. During her spare time, Tiffany enjoys reading, writing, taking care of her plants or cuddling with her two dogs. 



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