I am a project engineer with a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in traffic engineering, working in the transportation department of a large suburb (150,000 residents). My responsibilities are diverse: overseeing the operation of the city’s 100 traffic signals, addressing and mitigating traffic safety and congestion concerns, reviewing commercial and residential development plans, studying parking trends in the downtown, implementing bicycle routes, meeting with residents, and managing construction projects.
My previous position was as a design engineer for a transportation engineering firm. Working for a consultant is the more typical civil engineer career path. This involved a lot of design work for new roadways, intersection expansions, bike paths, and roundabouts. There was a mixture of creativity (what’s the best way we can solve this traffic congestion?) with traffic engineering principles (at a given design speed, how long should the left turn lane be?). There was also a lot of CAD work: a good engineer needs to be able to produce constructable plan sets that meet the state transportation department’s standards. I eventually left this job because I wanted to have more ownership of projects and to be able to focus on one community instead of various project locations spread throughout the state.
Working in the public sector is a unique challenge for an engineer because it involves many non-technical duties such as presenting project updates to City Council or explaining city ordinances to residents, but still requires a technical background. While there is limited design work as compared to a consulting firm, the satisfaction in creating something from nothing is still present when crafting new policies or establishing long-term development plans. A big part of the reason I set myself on this career path was because I wanted to be able to help the public. My role directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people. While it’s definitely behind the scenes, the things I do on a daily basis serve to make residents’ lives safer, more economical, and less frustrating.
My favorite part about being an engineer is knowing about day-to-day things that most people don’t ever stop to consider. Do you know that a traffic signal doesn’t detect a vehicle by weight, but because a car’s metal disrupts the electromagnetic field of a sensor in the pavement? Or do you know that roadways function as ancillary drainage systems and are actually designed to flood after a heavy rainfall in order to keep the water from getting into basements? Or that installing four-way stop signs at intersections can actually increase overall speeding in neighborhoods?
For any young people interested in a career in engineering, I would encourage you to not be intimidated. Engineering has a reputation for being a challenging major in college, but it’s not impossible and it’s not only for the whiz kids. If you find something that interests and excites you, don’t let the fear of failing hold you back. Determination, passion, and attitude will help you reach your goals.