Structural engineers are responsible for designing structures which will be physically able to withstand specific pressures and forces.
Structural engineers arguably perform one of the most important roles in the construction industry. Without the skills and technical knowledge of structural engineers, the buildings which we inhabit and spend our time in on a daily basis could potentially cause us serious injury or even death. Structural engineers are responsible for designing structures which will be able to withstand pressures.
During the lifetime of a typical building, various stresses and strains will test its physical composition and structural engineers will ensure that the structure is strong and flexible enough to remain safe and sturdy. Without the input of a structural engineer, buildings may twist, bend, or vibrate in ways that cause both structural damage and put human lives at risk. It is also the responsibility of a structural engineer to make sure that older buildings (which may not have been built to current regulations) can withstand forces in a safe fashion.
Structural engineers will monitor the progress of an architectural project from its initial stages to its completion. They usually create initial design models, using in-depth mathematical and scientific knowledge, and, once construction has started, they monitor the work and meet with contractors to ensure that the designs are being followed closely.
Newly qualified structural engineers can expect to earn approximately £18,000. However, depending upon the nature and location of the employer, this figure could rise to between £20,000 and £25,000. After several years working in the industry, individuals could earn up to £40,000 and it is not unusual for this figure to increase to £50,000. Additional benefits often include the provision of a company car and bonuses are a common feature of this role.
The following tasks will be performed by structural engineers on a regular basis:
- Performing accurate calculations of pressures and stresses placed on each element of a building
- Using computer software to design models of structures
- Using computer software to assess how structures will react to pressures and stresses
- Taking into account the relative impact of external forces and structural forces on the specific structure, e.g. strong winds or waves
- Deciding which materials would be most suitable for each part of the structure
- Assessing the budget of each project
- Giving advice to other individuals in the construction trade, including architects
- Performing thorough examinations of pre-existing buildings
- Recommending complete or partial rebuilding or repairs
- Meeting regularly with architects and engineers involved in each project
- Ensuring that legal regulations are maintained
- Making sure that health and safety guidelines are maintained
Very few structural engineers do not hold relevant degrees. Most hold either a Bachelor of Engineering degree or a Masters degree in structural engineering or civil engineering. Engineering courses are very competitive and you will need to gain good A Levels and have excellent numeracy skills. Some individuals with HNDs in subjects including construction and civil engineering also become structural engineers. However, these individuals will need to study additional courses after completing their studies. Many large engineering companies offer graduate training schemes and these are popular ways of gaining entry into the industry. For those who are serious about working as structural engineers, gaining incorporated engineer status or chartered engineer status is a great option. Further details about this process can be found here.
Structural engineers will need to possess the following skills:
- Excellent numeracy skills
- Excellent analytical skills
- In-depth scientific knowledge
- Good problem-solving skills
- Familiarity with computers and software programmes
- Good communication and inter-personal skills
- Good technical skills
- The ability to work well as part of a team
- The ability to use own initiative
- The ability to pay close attention to detail
- The ability to explain complex conceptual information in simple terms
- The ability to work to tight deadlines and remain calm under pressure
- The ability to stick to tight budgets
- A willingness to take responsibility for major decisions
Most structural engineers are able to work to a 9 to 5 timetable and usually have weekends and public holidays free. However, individuals will need to be prepared to work overtime and visit sites at short notice. If a building or structure is in danger of collapsing, structural engineers will need to travel to the site as soon as possible. Part-time work is usually available if desired. Structural engineers spend most of their time in an office environment but frequent visits to sites will be expected. For this reason, travel is a common feature of the job and overseas trips are also a standard feature.
Structural engineers will be expected to wear appropriate clothing whilst working on site. This clothing could include hard hats and high visibility vests.
Since the position entails a large amount of responsibility, it can be stressful. However, most structural engineers find their work both enjoyable and rewarding.
Gaining previous experience in the engineering field will give you the edge when applying for jobs. Since engineering is so competitive, you should try contacting a local company to ask for work experience. Alternatively, you could ask for the opportunity to shadow a relevant employee for a few days. All structural engineers will gain invaluable experience as they progress through a period of initial professional development towards professional status. After completing the required amount of experience, individuals will be interviewed and then have to take a final examination.
The major employers of structural engineers include:
- Engineering consultancies
- Local authorities
- Oil companies
- Railway operators
- Civil Engineering contractors
- Public utility companies
- The Civil Service
- The Armed Forces
Many structural engineers progress to become project managers. Some choose to specialise in a specific area of structural engineering. For instance, some may choose to work with buildings constructed from one particular sort of material. For those who fancy more of a change, work in universities is a possibility. Some structural engineers choose to adopt a less practical approach and becoming a lecturer in engineering provides the perfect opportunity to remain involved in the industry.
Stephen Burr is a chartered structural engineer.He left school in 1969 and studied at Coventry University for four years. He left Coventry with a degree in Civil Engineering and some invaluable experience with a contractor under his belt. Most of Stephen’s official training was done on the job, although he attended seminars and courses before becoming chartered as a civil engineer in 1986. Four years, after this landmark in his career, he became chartered as a structural engineer.
When Stephen first qualified as an engineer, he worked for companies of different sizes and natures. He opened his own practice in 1993 and, during his long career, has been involved with several high-profile projects including a feasibility study for an industrial city in Saudi Arabia, constructing steel communication towers in the Saudi Arabian desert, inspecting hospitals prior to them being handed over to clients, developing computer programmes which assess the risk of subsidence affecting British properties, designing bridges over rivers in Zambia, overseeing the construction of villas in Qatar, and building a road on Shoreham Beach.
At the moment, Stephen offers specialised services to domestic and small commercial businesses in the UK. He believes that this kind of work is very challenging, since small projects are usually as important as larger ones but the resources involved pose greater challenges. There is no typical working day in this career but one working day might see Stephen start by visiting a house to discuss the feasibility of increasing the accommodation size by constructing a rear extension.
During this meeting, Stephen would have to discuss technical and financial aspects, and also explain important health and safety legislation to the clients. This part of the job might seem repetitive but in reality it is far from it. Each project and client is unique and always provides a different challenge. After viewing the house, Stephen may return to the office to type up his notes and prepare an estimate for his services. During a typical afternoon, Stephen designs a structure, a task which is usually fragmented to some extent by the need to respond to queries from existing clients.
Stephen particularly enjoys the varied nature of his job and the constant challenges that it provides. The most consistent difficulty over the years has been trying to cope with economic downturns. The construction industry is always hit hard at the start of a recession. With regards to career progression, Stephen believes that it is possible to spend a complete career in research or product development. Travel abroad is always an exciting option as well. However, Stephen believes that it is not an industry for those who value job security. Although the rewards can be high, the risks which accompany the role are also substantial.