A structural engineer is responsible for designing any kind of structure so that it can fulfil a specific purpose, and remain safe, economic and functioning throughout its intended lifetime. Structural engineering is about investigating both the immediate loads and demands on the structure, as well as any likely future changes, and ensuring a structure is designed to withstand those loads.
As well as designing new builds, structural engineers also ensure older structures remain safe, and often design refurbishment schemes to ensure long life for existing structures.
As a structural engineer, you could be working on many areas of construction, including building design, construction, repairs, conversions and extensions. Projects could range from a simple, single building like a house, school or shop, to major schemes including hospitals, sports arenas, offshore oil rigs and bridges.
Often working closely with architects, structural engineers are involved at every stage of a project as they use their creativity and innovation to come up with sustainable solutions to some of the greatest challenges we face, including climate change.
As a career, this branch of engineering offers you the chance to play a part in shaping the world in which you live, and the profession also offers huge scope for challenge, variety and creative satisfaction. So, professionally, structural engineering can be hugely rewarding.
You could find yourself based with a contractor, consultant, local authority, or decide to go into teaching and research. There are also plenty of opportunities for working overseas, since you’ll be qualified to work anywhere in the world.
Stephen McGuigan is a structural engineer with Amey. He says: “The ideal situation for a young structural engineer is to be the resident engineer for one of their own designs. This will allow an opportunity to see if they could have produced a more efficient design."
“The structural engineer has to ensure that the structure being designed remains ‘fit for purpose’ throughout its design life, so must consider what might happen as well as what will happen to it during this time.”
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Professionals in the field made on average from £40,800 to £45,100 in 2008, and from £42,700 to £46,500 in 2009, according to figures from jobs posted on CareerStructure.com.
Hours and environment
Structural engineering design is normally office-based work, but can also involve site visits (checking dimensions, site conditions and so on), and will involve standard working hours.
There would normally be a couple of site visits to determine available space, height restrictions etc at the start. However, once these dimensions are established, it would mostly involve lot of office work. A final site visit would usually be carried out to check that what you propose can be built.
During the construction stage, the work is mostly site-based, with some office work needed if changes arise. The hours can be longer for site-based engineers, particularly if programme constraints demand accelerated progress.
There may be times when external conditions affect the available working time, and overnight working may be necessary. Equally, environmental noise may limit the hours that can be worked near inhabited areas. A good engineer would have considered all these points at an early stage of the design process, minimising potential problems.
During construction, a resident engineer carries out day-to-day supervision and confirms that the building does exactly what the designer intended.
Skills and interests
As a structural engineer, you will need to display keen commercial awareness and understand the business implications of the decisions you make.
Highly analytical, you’ll be good at maths, IT and mechanics, and be able to get your head around methods in construction, as well as health, safety and legal considerations.
Communication skills are particularly important in this role as you’ll be dealing with a wide range of clients and colleagues – as is the ability to work well as part of a team. For example, you may have to convey complex concepts to a client who is unfamiliar with structural engineering principles.
You’ll have good problem solving skills and be able to manage a whole project, including looking after budget, and it’s important that you can meet deadlines.
Large-scale projects in the south east, like the Crossrail scheme, the Olympic site and the Thames Gateway, will help ensure a steady demand for structural engineers. Despite the recession, there will certainly be opportunities for young engineers as recovery establishes itself.
Stephen McGuigan adds: “Civil engineering as a career provides three of the fundamental requirements for modern society; somewhere to live, safe drinking water supply and waste water disposal and treatment. This means that there will always be demand for such services. Transportation also plays a major part in society and although there are reduced numbers of new roads and structures likely to be built, the maintenance of the existing network will always continue. This involves assessment and generally looking at ways to extend the safe working life of bridges and so on, reducing the need for new structures if the existing ones can be refurbished. The career path outlook for civil engineering, although evolving, is still looking good."
It’s possible to make a start in this career at technician level, with an NC, HNC or HND or foundation degree in engineering and work your way up. But to achieve incorporated or chartered engineer status, it’s important to have an accredited BEng (Hons) degree or a master's (MEng) degree in either structural or civil engineering.
Most universities will ask for at least five decent GCSE passes and a couple of good A-levels, but it is also possible to get in with other qualifications such as an Access to Higher Education Award.
Training and advancement
Once you have met the academic requirements for your chosen grade of membership you can progress towards professional status.
Following graduation, you will normally need to complete four years’ initial professional development before applying for the professional review which consists of an interview and an examination. You will need to pass both in order to be elected to associate-member (AMIstructE) or chartered member (MIStructE) of the Institution of Structural Engineers, the pre-eminent worldwide professional institution for structural engineers. Once elected, the candidate can then register with the Engineering Council as either an incorporated (IEng) or chartered (CEng) structural engineer.
Large organisations who recruit structural engineering graduates include Atkins, Amey, Balfour Beatty, Buro Happold, Cundall, Carillion and Mott MacDonald.
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