The profession of environmental engineering is an extremely broad field. Environmental engineers perform jobs that are historically important and are also involved in new and emerging fields. The profession includes opportunities for work in both the public and private sectors. There are many related fields of engineering as the opportunities in this field have grown from being a historically public health related field to new exciting opportunities in environmental reclamation and pollution mitigation.
As opportunities in the field have grown, so has the need for advanced study and many postgraduate degrees are now available. The job outlook for the field has increased dramatically and with it the median starting salaries and expected salaries after ten years of experience.
The profession of environmental engineer can be divided into two distinct areas; the first being focused on public health and the second being focused on development of new technologies to remediate environmental damage. The first area of public health is historically where environmental engineers began their work. Examples of jobs in this area include waste management, pollution control and resource allocation.1 A specific example is the design and construction of a public water system able to bring clean drinking water to a population and then dispose of wastewater in an environmentally sound manner. The area also includes design and implementation of controls in industry to promote industrial hygiene and protection from harmful chemicals and radiation.
The second area in which the field has seen a great deal of new growth is in the area of environmental remediation. The collection of harmful particulates from power plants to reduce acid rain, cleaning of oil spills, and development of recycling programs are all areas in which environmental engineers have had success in their fields.
The destabilization of ecosystems from the byproducts of modern life has become a major concern and the development of new “green” building methods designed to maximize efficient use of resources while reducing waste and environmental impact is an area in which the field has grown recently. As the total population of the planet increases, the need for this sort of environmental engineering will only increase.
The sub-fields of environmental engineering are numerous. Civil engineers can work on a broad range of environmental problems with one of the largest being the hydrologic cycle of water collection, usage, and waste. In the past the solutions to these problems have been developed using engineering principles to tackle each component. Increasingly, engineers are looking at these systems as a whole and designing solutions that work together to provide greater efficiency while reducing environmental impact.
The other historically important environmental engineering degree has been mechanical, as these engineers have found jobs in industry, helping to reduce environmental impact by designing processes to reduce industrial waste such as soot from power plants and chemical byproducts from manufacturing plants.
Solutions to finding clean renewable energy such as wind and hydroelectric power also rely on the design and construction of turbines from mechanical engineers and construction of damns and wind turbine facilities from civil engineers. As mitigation of environmental impact becomes increasingly important, the role of chemical engineers in finding solutions to problems such as oil spills, air pollution and acid rain will also increase.
1A student interested in the field of environmental engineering has many options. An undergraduate degree in the field of environmental engineering is available at few schools. This however is not typical and due to the sheer size of the field many undergraduates will choose to major in one of three important disciplines. Civil, mechanical and chemical engineering all offer many possibilities in the further study of environmental engineering and provide an important base of knowledge in their respective areas.
After completion of one of these three undergraduate degrees (civil, mechanical, chemical) with a possible emphasis on environmental engineering, the student will find that many institutions offer graduate study in the field of environmental engineering. Many employers prefer graduate work in the field and a host of masters and Ph.D.’s specifically in environmental engineering are available.
2. The employment outlook for environmental engineers is exceptionally good as the need for competent well trained engineers that are able to tackle the environmental problems caused by population growth is only getting larger. The industry is expected to grow 31 percent, which is faster than the average rate of 11 percent for all engineering jobs. The starting salary for environmental engineers as reported by Salary.com is $53,501. With 8-10 years of experience in the field the median income climbs to $104,251.3
The field of environmental engineering is historically a very important one, with examples occurring as early as Roman civilization where aqua ducts were used to provide clean drinking water to the citizens of Rome. The field has continued to evolve as the needs of an increasingly urban and growing population has strained the ability of our environment to provide for our population. The need for smart individuals who can contribute to the solving of complex problems presented by our modern lifestyle and technology bodes well for the industry. Opportunities in the field continued to be discovered daily as society continues to look for ways to become better stewards of the environment in which we live.
1McMahon M. 2013. What is Environmental Engineering? [Internet]. Sparks(NV):Conjecture Corporation; [2013, cited 2013 Aug 31] . Available from: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-environmental-engineering.htm
2What does an Environmental Engineer do? [Internet]. What Does A ___ Do?; [cited 2013 Aug 31] . Available from: http://www.whatdoesado.com/environmental-engineer.htm
3Fineday M. 2012 Apr 14. Environmental engineer salary & career outlook [Internet]. Foster City(CA):Quinstreet, Inc.; [2012 Apr 14, cited 2013 Aug 31] . Available from: http://www.schools.com/news/environmental-engineersalary-career-outlook.html