Engineers design and develop technology that affects the world around them. Two types of engineers, in particular, make a major impact on the world. Civil engineers create the structures, ranging from bridges and roads to airports and water treatment facilities, that society uses on a daily basis for living, working and transportation. Environmental engineers develop technology and processes to solve problems in the natural environment. Both careers can be rewarding in many ways, and there is certainly overlap between the two disciplines.
Both of these degree options and career options are good, but the benefits of choosing a civil engineering degree instead of an environmental engineering degree include having a more versatile education and broader set of career opportunities and seeing more rapid job growth. If you’re trying to decide between these two paths, it makes sense to look at the differences between civil engineering and environmental engineering and the benefits of both of these programs of study.
The Breadth of Study in Civil vs. Environmental Engineering
One reason why the fields of civil and environmental engineering are often compared is because there’s a good deal of overlap between the two fields. Environmental engineering is actually a subarea within the larger field of civil engineering, which happens to be among the oldest and broadest engineering disciplines.
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Since environmental engineering is one of many subdisciplines within the discipline of civil engineering, it makes sense that studying civil engineering allows for a broader and more versatile education. After all, majoring in environmental engineering means devoting your college curriculum to studying just one specialization within the discipline. Majoring in civil engineering, instead, allows you to develop a foundation in environmental engineering concepts and practices while also studying other aspects of the civil engineering field, such as structural engineering, transportation engineering, geotechnical engineering, water resources engineering and construction management.
Take a look at the curricula for these two majors, and you will see the difference in the breadth of coursework. A civil engineering education may focus on coursework in civil engineering materials, surveying, soil mechanics and steel and concrete design. Most civil engineering students will take at least one course pertaining to environmental engineering, but they are also likely to take classes in construction engineering, structural analysis and transportation engineering.
Environmental engineering majors may start their major coursework with an Introduction to Environmental Engineering class. Further areas of study include environmental systems design, the chemical and microbiological principles of environmental engineering and sustainable engineering principles. Water management is an important part of environmental engineering. Students in this major often take classes in water quality and analysis, environmental hydrology and stormwater management and the design of water and wastewater systems, some of which include laboratory components. Pollution and contaminants are also major areas of focus in this field, a fact that is reflected in coursework in air pollution control systems and environmental fluids and contaminant dynamics.
Which of these programs of study is better? That’s difficult to say, not only because “better” is subjective and depends on the individual’s interests and strengths but also because both fields are good ones with strong career prospects. If you’re especially passionate about the environment, it makes sense to pursue a degree in environmental engineering. Otherwise, you may decide that civil engineering offers a more diverse array of employment options.
Naturally, there are pros and cons of both a broader and a narrower program of study. A more focused program can be beneficial when employers are seeking a candidate with in-depth knowledge about a smaller field of study but detrimental when graduates don’t have a broad enough knowledge base. Conversely, students in a program that prizes breadth over depth might know the foundations of a lot of subjects but lack enough substance in the subjects that matter for job performance. In the case of engineering, however, the technical and practical skills students gain while earning their degrees mean that they rarely find their education unmarketable due to its breadth.
Many civil engineering degree programs also allow students to pursue more specialized academic tracks or concentrations alongside their broader major requirements. Choosing a civil engineering major with a concentration in environmental engineering could be a good middle-ground for prospective engineers who are having trouble choosing between these two major options. In this program option, you would complete all of the requirements of a typical civil engineering degree program – or course equivalents that are tailored for environmental engineering students – but you would use your free electives and technical electives to complete additional environmental engineering courses such as environmental hydrology, air pollution control systems and water and wastewater systems design. Civil environmental engineers with training in both aspects of the field may enjoy the best of both worlds, with a broad civil engineering knowledge base and a moderate depth of specialized knowledge in environmental engineering.
Of course, both civil engineering majors and environmental engineering majors need to take coursework in the foundations of engineering principles and practice. At many engineering schools, undergraduate students must complete core engineering coursework in engineering fundamentals no matter which discipline they choose as their major. Examples of core engineering classes include engineering statics and dynamics, the mechanics of fluids and solids, and thermodynamics.
Design courses and internship opportunities are also part of an engineering curriculum, regardless of whether you choose to major in civil engineering or environmental engineering.
Differences Between Civil and Environmental Engineering Employment Opportunities
Because of its breadth, civil engineering offers its students many more potential job opportunities. A civil engineer designs and develops all kinds of structures, infrastructure projects and transportation systems, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. The engineering services industry accounts for half of the civil engineer workforce in America, while nonresidential building construction and government agencies at the local, state or federal level make up the remaining top employment industries for this field.
Environmental engineering is both a narrower field of study and an interdisciplinary one. Knowledge of soil science, chemistry and biology is as important in this occupation as a background in the principles of engineering, according to the BLS. Unlike civil engineers, environmental engineers focus on improving environmental issues in all of their work. However, the environmental projects they work on can range from waste disposal to climate change and from recycling to water and air pollution, the BLS reported. While engineering services is also the largest employment industry for environmental engineers, only about one in four environmental engineers worked in that field as of 2020. Another 19 percent of environmental engineers worked for the management, scientific and technical consulting services industry. State governments employed as many environmental engineers in 2020 as local and federal governments combined.
When you envision your future engineering career, what do you imagine? If you want to build bridges and airports, civil engineering is the degree path for you. Environmental engineering may be a better choice if you aspire to devise non-infrastructure solutions in environmental conservation and preservation. However, if you’re interested in designing water management systems and wastewater treatment plants, either degree path could help you reach your goals. Civil and environmental engineers frequently work together, often serving somewhat different roles on the same projects pertaining to environmental infrastructure.
It makes sense that government entities are common employers of these two types of engineers, because civil and environmental engineering are also among the branches of engineering that most commonly deal with governmental regulations. While civil engineers oversee the activities of engineering infrastructure to ensure compliance, environmental engineers assist with government-led remediation projects and advise government personnel on the proper procedures for dealing with environmental contaminants.
Civil Engineering vs. Environmental Engineering Salary Potential
The median wage for civil engineers in 2020 was $88,570, according to the BLS, with the 10 percent of workers who earn the most money making upwards of $144,810 and the lowest 10 percent of earners reporting wages of less than $56,160. The federal government paid civil engineers the most, with a near-six-figure median wage of $99,750 in 2020. Local governments also paid civil engineers well, with the BLS reporting a median salary of $95,760. Engineering services, the field which employed 50 percent of civil engineers in 2020, paid a median wage of $89,460 per year. State government entities paid civil engineers an $84,670 median salary. Of the top five largest employing industries for civil engineers, the nonresidential building construction industry paid the least, with a median wage of $76,230.
Environmental engineers tend to earn a little bit more than civil engineers. For the occupation as a whole in 2020, the BLS reported a median wage of $92,120. The highest earners among environmental engineers made more than $144,670 that year, while the lowest earners made less than $55,450. The federal government is, again, the highest paying of the top employment industries, with a median salary of $110,250. The gap between the highest and second-highest paying industry was significant, with the engineering services industry reporting a $93,000 median salary for environmental engineers. Only a couple hundred dollars separate the median salaries paid by local governments – $88,180 – and the management, scientific and technical consulting services – $87,920. State governments pay environmental engineers slightly less than they pay civil engineers, with a median wage of $82,990.
Interestingly, the slightly higher-paying field of environmental engineering is also the career path in which engineers are more likely to have an advanced degree. O*NET reported that bachelor’s degrees accounted for 86 percent of the civil engineering occupation, with only 10 percent of the field reporting a master’s degree as their highest level of education and the remaining civil engineers reporting a post-baccalaureate certificate. Environmental engineers are 2.5 times more likely to hold a master’s degree, with O*NET reporting that 64 percent of the occupation had a bachelor’s degree, 27 percent had a master’s degree, and 9 percent had a post-baccalaureate certificate.
Is the few thousand extra dollars per year that environmental engineers make worth the greater likelihood of needing a master’s degree and all of the time, effort and expense of going to graduate school? That’s a question prospective students need to consider as they contemplate their major options. Of course, there’s no guarantee that environmental engineering majors will have to go to graduate school, since the majority of these professionals still had only a bachelor’s degree.
A Better Job Outlook for Civil Engineers
Environmental engineering jobs are growing, but they aren’t growing as quickly as civil engineering roles are. The BLS expected jobs for environmental engineers to increase by 4 percent over the decade from 2020 through 2030, putting the predicted job growth rate for this occupation at just half of the 8 percent rate of job growth expected for all occupations. Projected rates of job growth for environmental engineers also lagged behind those for engineering careers as a whole. If the BLS is correct in its estimates, 1,900 new jobs will join the 52,300 existing roles for environmental engineers by 2030.
For civil engineers, the BLS predicted a faster rate of job growth, 8 percent, between 2020 and 2030. This puts the projected job outlook for civil engineers on par with the average job growth rate anticipated across all occupations and slightly – by a single percentage point – above the 7 percent of job growth expected for engineering roles overall. Civil engineering is already a large occupation, with 309,800 Americans working in this role as of 2020. The field is predicted to grow by 25,300 new jobs between 2020 and 2030.
Seeing the significant difference in the demand for civil engineers vs. environmental engineers may persuade students to opt for a civil engineering major. Although earning an environmental degree certainly has value – including the financial value of a median salary that is a few thousand dollars higher than that of civil engineers –there are many more current jobs and projected new job openings for civil engineers more broadly.
Civil engineering is not only the largest of all engineering disciplines but was also the engineering occupation expected to gain the largest number of new job opportunities over the decade between 2016 and 2026, the BLS reported.