Careers in environmental engineering
Do you worry about the effects of pollution on the world’s oceans? What about the problems that stem from climate change? If matters like these occupy your thoughts, environmental engineering may be an excellent career for you.
While concern for the environment is critical for this role, environmental engineers are first and foremost engineers. That means scientific, mathematical, and technical skills are also crucial, as these environmentalists take practical approaches to solving some of the most pressing crises of our age.
What is environmental engineering?
Environmental engineers collaborate with other environmental scientists, engineers, waste technicians, legal or business experts to protect the public from environmental problems. These include air pollution and climate change, as well as contaminated water or soil, and the hazards of oil drilling and hydrofracking.
Environmental engineers may focus on improving old technologies to make them more sustainable or designing innovative eco-friendly technologies. They may also develop or improve on the technical processes used to measure or treat existing issues.
Why pursue a career in environmental engineering?
Environmental engineering can be a rewarding and lucrative career. Unlike most high-paying jobs, which often require at least a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree is the main educational requirement for becoming an environmental engineer. It also takes less time to gain momentum in this field.
As an example, most 4-year degrees end up paying for themselves within 4.48 years. With a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering, you may see a full return on your investment in as little as 3.36 years. According to our original research, average earnings for environmental engineers reach $52,628 after 2 years in the workplace. For comparison, other degrees average $46,471.
As far as job outlook, the field of environmental engineering is expected to grow 4% through to the year 2030. Experts estimate roughly 4,000 openings per year in this field over the next decade.
The 3-way catalytic converter, invented by engineer John Mooney and chemist Carl Keith, was one of most important environmental inventions. It works by reducing the toxicity of pollutants in vehicle emissions.
How hard is it to become an environmental engineer?
It depends on whether you enjoy subjects such as calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. If you excel at math and science, earning a degree in environmental engineering should be attainable.
Other subjects you may encounter along the way include:
- green engineering
- sustainable design
- fluid mechanics
- air pollution control
- water quality control
How long does it take to get started in environmental engineering?
It takes about 4-5 years after high school to get started in environmental engineering. There are steps you can take along the way to make yourself more marketable, such as applying for internships and sitting for licensing exams.
Where do environmental engineers work?
Environmental engineers can work in both the public and private sectors and across a range of industries. The following are a few examples of typical work settings:
- with the local highway department, designing highway drainage systems
- assisting a major retailer with environmental compliance
- employed by an architectural firm for computation and evaluation of water planning projects
- at an environmental regulation department, developing strategies for hazard waste cleanup
- reviewing mining permit applications for a state mining and energy department
Engineering roles are often divided into levels according to experience and degree of responsibility. The way environmental engineering roles are classified is not standardized across states. They may be divided across 4 to 7 levels. In certain states, they are graded 9, 10, P11, and 12.
These are entry-level roles, available to recent graduates. The implication is that you have the required schooling but are lacking in professional experience. Having completed the FE exam is not required, but preference is often given to candidates who have. Graduate engineers in environmental engineering perform clearly defined routine tasks under the close supervision of a higher-level engineer. Some independent work may be involved.
Engineer 1 is the entry or intermediate level. Recent graduates may be eligible for these positions, but engineers with a few years’ experience are usually preferred. At this level, you earn a good salary while working to expand your knowledge and skills. You are closely supervised by higher-level engineers and receive plenty of feedback. You may assist others with projects, but usually aren’t in charge of anyone other than yourself. Once you have gained 2 or more years of experience at this level, you may find yourself moving up the ladder.
Engineer 2 is the intermediate level. These engineers have a lot of work experience under their belts and strong knowledge of the skills required to perform the work. At this level, you may still be under another person’s supervision but can also work independently and supervise others.
Engineer 3 is the intermediate-advanced level. At this point, you have roughly 4 to 7 years of solid engineering experience beyond college. You are responsible for making bigger decisions. You still report to a manager, but are also in charge of overseeing projects. You may be in charge of your own team and its outcomes. Reaching this and higher levels is often achieved through work experience, but if you continue your education to receive a master’s degree, and sit for your licensing exams, you may be able to speed up the process.
What types of environmental engineering jobs are there?
Environmental engineering roles exist in a variety of industries and settings. Many types of companies need the services of environmental engineers to ensure environmental compliance.
You may end up working for a consulting firm or a construction company. You could help design buildings that withstand hurricanes, or counsel executives on the best way to use land investments. You could be instrumental in preventing catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the California wildfires, or remediating the damage left in their wake.
Job titles that fall under the umbrella of environmental engineering include the following:
Environmental engineerMedian salary: 67K US$
The job of an environmental engineer is to apply the sciences of engineering, chemistry, soil, water, and physics to address small and large-scale environmental issues. They may be employed in industry, government, or non-governmental organizations.
Environmental engineering technologist/technicianMedian salary: 48K US$
These professionals carry out the plans designed by environmental engineers. They may run tests on water or soil, record and maintain data, or arrange for the remediation of hazardous materials such as lead, mold, or asbestos. The job is hands-on and directly involved in day-to-day projects. It is possible to enter this career with an associate degree in engineering.See more
Energy efficiency engineerMedian salary: 65K US$
These engineers perform energy audits on existing structures and systems to find weaknesses. They also strategize improvements that can be made to increase energy efficiency. They may work with architects to design energy-efficient buildings.
Green building engineerMedian salary: 71K US$
Green building engineers are those with experience using environmentally sustainable materials and techniques to reduce the carbon footprint of a structure. Among other tasks, they may help builders or contractors choose sustainable materials for roofing, flooring, and insulation.
Geotechnical engineerMedian salary: 68K US$
Geotechnical engineers investigate what lies beneath the earth’s surface. Their main concerns are features like soil and rock and applying this knowledge to the design of structures such as tunnels, bridges, dams, and highways. They also evaluate the environmental impact of such building projects.
Wastewater engineerMedian salary: 68K US$
Wastewater engineers often work in water treatment plants to ensure the safety of a community’s drinking water or the safe disposal of wastewater. Alternatively, they may design pipelines, strategize to prevent damage from flooding, or oversee the regulation of an area’s water resources.
7 steps to become an environmental engineer
This path commonly begins with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related discipline and a passion for protecting the environment. From there, your choices and interests can take you in different directions. Below is an outline of the common career trajectory.
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering
There is no shortcut around earning your degree. Environmental engineers need a bachelor’s degree at minimum to be marketable job applicants. Decide where your environmental interests lie and choose your coursework accordingly. Apply for internships to earn valuable experience while you are still in school.
Step 2: Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam [optional]
The FE exam takes 6 hours to complete and includes 110 questions. The FE Environmental has a 70% pass rate, among the highest for all versions of the exam. Passing it is the first step to becoming a licensed environmental engineer. You can take the test immediately following graduation or shortly before, if you feel prepared. It usually takes between 7 and 10 days to receive your results.
Step 3: Gain work experience
After graduating and potentially passing the FE, you find your first engineering job and begin moving up the ranks. For those pursuing licensure, your next exam is the PE, which requires at least 4 years of work experience in the field.
Step 4: Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam [optional]
The PE exam is composed of 80 questions takes 9 hours. The PE Environmental is offered year-round, unlike most other versions of the exam. Approximately 76% percent of test-takers pass on the first try. The rate drops to 50% for subsequent tries, so it is a good idea to prepare well enough to pass the first time.
Step 5: Become licensed [optional]
The next step is to become licensed. Once you can prove you have the education, work experience, and test scores to qualify, you can submit your application for licensure. Becoming licensed is not a requirement to work as an environmental engineer unless your job directly impacts the public. Licensure is also mandatory for many government roles.
Step 6: Earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering [optional]
A bachelor’s degree is enough to get you in the door in most jobs in environmental engineering. Earning your master’s could expedite your career development. A master’s degree usually requires an additional 2 years of study.
Step 7: Earn a Ph.D. in environmental engineering
It often takes between 10 and 12 years of study after high school to obtain a Ph.D. This degree is usually pursued by those seeking to teach at the college level or become research scientists. It can also open doors to top-tier positions within organizations.
Qualities and skills of an environmental engineer
Strong math and science skills are the basis for success as an environmental engineer, but the following are also helpful:
- effective communication
- working well with others
- critical thinking and problem solving
- desire to protect the environment
- strong tech skills
- active listening
- confidence in your ability to make good decisions
This vocation is all about taking in and assimilating information, then forming conclusions and building strategies. There is a lot of teamwork involved, but managing your own time well with little or no supervision is also required.
Frequently asked questions
How hard is an environmental engineering degree?
An engineering degree can be challenging but strong STEM skills help significantly. Even with math and science skills, college may involve learning how to use unfamiliar technology and software programs, and how to interpret technical documents such as blueprints, drawings, models, and plans. If this thought excites rather than terrifies you, this degree may be for you.
Do I need a PE license to become an environmental engineer?
No. This is why most graduates are able to find positions right out of college. However, if you wish to offer engineering services to the public, you may need a license. Some employers only consider applicants who have sat for the FE or obtained their PE license. Having your license opens more doors, especially if you wish to pursue senior positions.
Do environmental engineers work with renewable energy?
Yes, renewable energy can be a key component of their work. If you are pursuing work as an energy efficiency engineer or green engineer, renewable energy may play a particularly large role in your career.
Is environmental engineering a branch of civil engineering?
Technically, yes. Civil engineering is the broader category dealing with the design and construction of infrastructure such as roadways, bridges, seaports, airports, and more. There are multiple branches of civil engineering and some aspects of environmental engineering fall under this umbrella term.
To stand out among your peers post-graduation, completing the FE and starting on the path towards Professional Engineer (PE) licensing opens up a wide range of employment opportunities. Learn more about the FE exam for environmental engineering in this resource from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).
The AAEES offers board certification to environmental engineers in an effort to promote high standards. They are also a professional organization that provides training, mentorship, continuing education, and advises the public and decision-makers on environmental matters.
ISSMGE is a professional organization representing the interests of geotechnical engineers around the world. Along with membership, it offers a communication platform for networking and education, as well as organizing international conferences.
The Water Environment Federation is a professional organization representing water quality professionals from a range of disciplines. They provide technical education and training and have been protecting public health and serving local communities since 1928.