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How to Become an Environmental Engineer

two wind farm engineers using a builder's level to plan out the expansion of the wind farm site. they are wearing orange hi vis jackets and blue hard hats . one is male , one is female. In the foreground the female is looking through the level whilst the male engineer is approaching .In the background wind turbines can be seen across the landscape.

The increase of catastrophic climate events—record-breaking wildfires, melting ice caps, and rising seas—demonstrates the fragile nature of our planet. We must address these threats, both as a nation and as global citizens. If you learn how to become an environmental engineer, you will be on the frontlines, solving these global environmental problems.

Therefore, if you are passionate about the environment, if you want to be a steward of environmental change, and you want to help protect the environment for future generations, then this career is a great choice for you. Read on to learn more.

History of Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineers have existed for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until our modern era that a student could get an education in this exact field.

Some of the earliest examples of environmental design include the following achievements:

  • The aqueducts of Egypt and India brought water to the cities.
  • Rome advanced the technology to impressive levels of engineering with its aqueducts.
  • Over 2,000 years ago, Mayans in the ancient city of Tikal in Guatemala were purifying their water with zeolite in a unique filtration system.
  • The creation of extensive sewage systems in London in the mid-1850s ended the cholera epidemic and continues to serve this city of over 8 million people today.

Today’s environmental engineers tackle threats to our wellbeing and our planet. They focus on areas to avoid polluting or damaging our ecology and include:

  • Climate change
  • Air pollution
  • Clean water
  • Sewage
  • Sanitation
  • Recycling
  • Sustainable Farming
  • Waste disposal
  • Public health

What is Environmental Engineering?

Environmental Engineers find solutions to environmental problems through the foundational principles of chemistry, engineering, ecology, soil science, hydrology, geology, and biology. They study the impact of advances in technology on the environment. As our use of technology is ever-improving and increasing, the demand for environmental engineers will always be present.

Environmental engineers provide solutions that ensure clean air and water, efficient disposal of wastes, and maintaining public health and safety. Specific areas of concentration in this field include:

  • Acid rain
  • Air pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Global warming
  • Hazardous wastes
  • Ozone depletion
  • Recycling
  • Water supply
  • Sanitation and prevention of water-borne diseases

The field is often considered a sub-discipline of chemical and civil engineering. However, it has evolved to encompass a broader range of engineering and scientific principles to maintain, improve, and protect the environment. The mission of environmental engineering is to improve the quality of life by enhancing the environment while protecting our health and the ecosystems of our planet.

A Green Field

Addressing impacts from industrial wastes and actively managing the development of land and resources creates opportunities to develop solutions that benefit the planet and our health and safety.

“We can no longer think about solving one environmental — or societal — challenge in a vacuum. We really have to think about things from a transdisciplinary perspective,” said Melissa Bilec, co-director at the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

Problem-solving within the ideals of a circular economy is an idea that is gaining traction. Environmental engineers can lead the way in sustainable engineering through their knowledge and interest in a holistic approach to ecological problems. This trend is opening doors to environmental engineers in businesses and industries due to the many benefits, including financial and image/branding gains.

The top 10 benefits of a circular economy approach:

  1. Save business, customers, and suppliers money
  2. Capture more value from material and resources
  3. Develop new markets and gain new customers
  4. Build loyalty with your customer base
  5. Satisfy changing customer needs and expectations
  6. Increase the security and price stability of your supply chain
  7. Attract, retain, and engage your employees through green values
  8. Build your brand and reputation as an innovative organization
  9. Exceed government regulations and stay ahead of new requirements
  10. Provide more return and lower risk to your investors

Careers for Environmental Engineers

Coursework for environmental engineers includes math, science, and engineering classes. The broad scope within the industry leads to a wide variety of job titles to explore in your career. Graduates can choose from many paths such as research and teaching in higher education, engineering consulting, regulatory positions in industry and government, and health and safety management within corporations.

Employment opportunities include government services, manufacturing, construction, environmental safety, and healthcare. Some standard job titles are Air Pollution Control Engineer, Environmental Health and Safety Manager, Engineering Consultant, Environmental Engineer, Environmental Remediation Specialist, Hazardous Substances Engineer, Water Treatment Plant Operator, Environmental Compliance Specialist, Environmental Scientist, and Sanitary Engineer.

Duties of an Environmental Engineer

Professionals in this industry mitigate environmental hazards through prevention, control, and remediation. Components of this work include research, planning, designing, and performing activities that focus on environmental health and the effective use of resources. Considered a “green” career, environmental engineers study the impact of industrialization on our planet and manage the adverse effects.

Specific responsibilities of an environmental engineer, according to Indeed.com, entail:

  • Land assessments for industrial, commercial, or residential sites for environmental impact if someone were to build on that site
  • Use of specialized equipment to test soil, water, and air of a construction area
  • Improve waste management system design
  • Reclamation and disposal of air, water, and land
  • Find better solutions for site cleanup on a construction site
  • Evaluate current systems and design innovative ways to improve or replace the existing systems or processes
  • Field observation and field sample collections
  • Investigate, record, and compile reports for environmental-related complaints
  • Pollution-control and waste treatment planning
  • Develop guidelines for the disposal of hazardous materials
  • Act as a regulatory arm for a companies compliance with waste disposal and management

Work-Life of an Environmental Engineer

The work settings of environmental engineers can vary widely. Some may work remotely, designing and planning solutions to ecological issues. Others may collaborate with urban and regional planners, government agencies, or engineers in related fields to address environmental problems. Their workday may take them from the office to meetings, to construction or ecological sites for hands-on work.

A 40-hour workweek is typical, and those who manage projects often extend their workweek to complete all of the necessary tasks so others can move forward with their work.

How to Become an Environmental Engineer

A bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering is the gold standard. Those who have been in the field for a long time may come from related educational backgrounds such as chemical, civil, or general engineering backgrounds. Others may have entered through a biology or field research background.

Degree programs in environmental engineering have risen in popularity, especially online degree programs, which offer quality education from the convenience of your home. Employers are more than ever seeking candidates with the expertise provided by an environmental engineering degree. You can expect to take geology, physics, biology, chemistry, statistics, mathematics, and computer science courses.

Practical experience is desired in every field. Many schools offer cooperative engineering programs that provide job experience as part of your college credits, giving you real-world experience through your education. Such a program can benefit younger workers who do not have professional job experience.

In searching for a degree program, the option of 100% online degree programs in environmental engineering allows you to find the very best program, regardless of your geographical location. You will want to ensure that your institution is certified through ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This organization accredits programs in engineering, engineering technology, computing, and applied and natural sciences.

Environmental Engineering Degrees

A bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering is the minimum required for a career in this field. Additionally, some schools offer a 5-year program that provides a graduate with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. A graduate degree opens doors to more career opportunities such as teaching, research and development, and executive-level positions within the industry.

It is possible to work as an environmental engineering technician with an associate’s degree in the field. An associate degree is an excellent place to start for those who do not want to pursue a bachelor’s degree or those who want to get a feel for the work.

Requirements Beyond a Degree

Your online bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering can land you an entry-level job. You will need to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam at the start of your career. The next step is to pass the Professional Engineering (PE) exam. This level of certification is only available after four years of working as an engineer. The PE is a rigorous assessment of your knowledge of engineering principles. Holding the Professional Engineer title will open doors for you and lead to higher wages.

Soft Skills that will Benefit your Career

While education and experience are essential, employers seek soft skills in their candidates. Soft skills are the productive personality traits inherent in you. Most employers want an environmental engineer with strong analytical and problem-solving skills. Other personal qualities that are sought after include:

  • Organizational Skills. You will be required to plan and direct projects. Being able to streamline operations for maximum efficiency and flow is crucial.
  • Communication Skills. You must be able to communicate clearly and effectively. Both written and verbal communication skills are needed.
  • Active Listening Skills. To be an effective leader, you must understand what the problem is that needs to be addressed and understand the needs of the executives, your team, government officials, and your customers or clients.
  • Independent Worker. The ability to heed direction and complete tasks on your own is paramount for an environmental engineer.
  • Team Player. You must collaborate with other agencies, superiors, and co-workers to accomplish solutions.

Sample Job Titles and Responsibilities

Jobs within Environmental Engineering vary widely. Below are a few career opportunities within this field with work descriptions and requirements. Information is pulled from active job openings in 2021.

Staff Environmental Engineer (entry-level)

An experienced, motivated, detail-oriented Staff Environmental Engineer is needed. Working under the direction of project managers and partners, the successful candidate will work on interesting site investigation and remediation, water resources, hydrologic and hydraulic assessment, permitting, sustainability, and related projects. You may also have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, covering the full spectrum of consulting services on a global level.

Requirements:

  • BS in environmental engineering, civil engineering or related degree. Minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Graduate degree with related internship experience a plus
  • Experience with AutoCAD and/or GIS a plus
  • Experience with hydrologic and hydraulic modeling calculations is a plus
  • Fieldwork experience and 40-hour OSHA HAZWOPER certification are a plus
  • Strong commitment to safety, including following established Health and Safety protocols
  • Valid driver’s license and a good driving record
  • Effective written/verbal communication and organization/analytical skills; experience recording/writing detailed technical data and reports a plus
  • Ability to work independently and as part of a team
  • Ability to multitask, maintain flexibility, travel, and work independently with minimal supervision
  • Must be comfortable with remote working.

Graduate Civil/Environmental Engineering

Candidate will be performing work on a variety of water/wastewater utility projects:

  • Construction inspection of plan and pipeline projects
  • Engineering report preparation
  • Water/wastewater project design and permitting
  • Master planning related tasks
  • Work may also include some petroleum contamination assessment/remediation report writing and fieldwork

Requirements:

  • Required education: Bachelor’s Degree in Civil or Environmental Engineering
  • Minimum years of relevant experience: 0-3
  • Needs to be organized, have good technical writing and communication skills, and be a self-starter
  • Position includes some outdoor construction inspection work

The work of environmental engineers offers many opportunities. You can choose to focus on a particular area that holds meaning to you. Other directions your degree in environmental engineering could take you include:

  • Treat and distribute safe and reliable drinking water
  • Recover material, nutrient, and energy resources from wastewater and solid waste
  • Protect and restore wetlands, streams, lakes, and groundwater
  • Allocate water resources for urban, rural, and recreational use
  • Protect and develop coastal shorelines and stream banks
  • Manage stormwater and minimize the risk of flood events
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle solid wastes
  • Minimize the production of and provide treatment of industrial and agricultural wastes
  • Minimize the production of and provide treatment of industrial air emissions
  • Prepare society for the impacts of climate change
  • Slow down or reverse climate change via –
    • Alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels
    • Recovery of carbon and other greenhouse gases from industrial air emissions

Beyond Environmental Engineering

Those who want to combine their love and respect of the law with their love and respect for the planet can choose to focus on environmental engineering law. This profession requires degrees in both environmental engineering and law. Licensure through both the American Bar Association (through passing the bar exam) and graduating with a degree in environmental engineering from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) are components of working in environmental engineering law.

Duties within the field of environmental engineering law, according to Onet, include:

  • Provide technical support for environmental remediation or litigation projects, including remediation system design or determination of regulatory applicability.
  • Collaborate with environmental scientists, planners, hazardous-waste technicians, engineers, lar or business experts, or other specialists to address environmental problems.
  • Assess the existing or potential environmental impact of land use projects on air, water, or land.
  • Advise corporations or government agencies of procedures to follow in cleaning up contaminated sites to protect people and the environment.
  • Inspect industrial or municipal facilities or programs to evaluate operational effectiveness or ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

Environmental Engineer Career Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for environmental engineers is just over $92,000 per year. This is more than double the average mean wage for all jobs. New graduates can expect to earn around $55,000, while those with experience and expertise garner more than $144,000. The federal government pays the highest wages, followed by private engineering firms. Local and state governments pay the least.

According to BLS, the job outlook for 2020 – 2030 is predicted to be slower than average with 4% growth. Nearly 53,000 people are working in the field. An estimated 4,000 employed environmental engineers will retire or leave their jobs in the next ten years, opening more opportunities. Most job opportunities are in California with New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Find an Online Environmental Engineering Program Today!

Suppose you want to make a difference with your work and are comfortable with math and science. In that case, environmental engineering may be the right career path for you. After earning a bachelor’s or master’s of science degree, the possibilities for your career range from government regulatory work to hazardous waste management to pollution control and more.

As technology advances and increases the impact on our natural environment, the importance of combating climate change and protecting our planet takes center stage. The demand for environmental engineers in “green” careers will increase. Areas that will see growth are green buildings, renewable energies, water conservation and recycling, composting, and sustainable systems.

In the words of the environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, “Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.”

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