Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They work to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control. They also address global issues, such as unsafe drinking water, climate change, and environmental sustainability.

Duties

Environmental engineers typically do the following:

  • Prepare, review, and update environmental investigation reports
  • Design projects that lead to environmental protection, such as water reclamation facilities or air pollution control systems
  • Obtain, update, and maintain plans, permits, and standard operating procedures
  • Provide technical support for environmental remediation projects and for legal actions
  • Analyze scientific data and do quality-control checks
  • Monitor the progress of environmental improvement programs
  • Inspect industrial and municipal facilities and programs in order to ensure compliance with environmental regulations
  • Advise corporations and government agencies about procedures for cleaning up contaminated sites

Environmental engineers conduct hazardous-waste management studies in which they evaluate the significance of a hazard and advise on treating and containing it. They also design systems for municipal and industrial water supplies and industrial wastewater treatment, and research the environmental impact of proposed construction projects. Environmental engineers in government develop regulations to prevent mishaps.

Some environmental engineers study ways to minimize the effects of acid rain, climate change, automobile emissions, and ozone depletion. They also collaborate with environmental scientists, urban and regional planners, hazardous-waste technicians, and other engineers, as well as with specialists such as experts in law and business, to address environmental problems and environmental sustainability. For more information, see the job profiles on environmental scientists and specialists, hazardous materials removal workers, lawyers, and urban and regional planners.

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Work Environment

Environmental engineers held about 55,400 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of environmental engineers were as follows:

Engineering services 25%
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 21
State government, excluding education and hospitals 14
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 8
Federal government, excluding postal service 6

Environmental engineers work in a variety of settings because of the nature of the tasks they do:

  • When they are working with other engineers and with urban and regional planners, environmental engineers are likely to be in offices.
  • When they are working with businesspeople and lawyers, environmental engineers are likely to be at seminars, presenting information and answering questions.
  • When they are working with hazardous materials removal workers and environmental scientists, environmental engineers work at specific sites outdoors.

Work Schedules

Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work more than 40 hours per week to monitor the project’s progress, ensure that deadlines are met, and recommend corrective action when needed.

Education and Training

Environmental engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field, such as civil, chemical, or general engineering. Employers also value practical experience. Therefore, cooperative engineering programs, in which college credit is awarded for structured job experience, are valuable as well.

Education

Entry-level environmental engineering jobs require a bachelor’s degree. Programs include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs in which students gain practical experience while completing their education.

At some colleges and universities, a student can enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some colleges and universities or to do research and development, and employers may prefer candidates to have a master’s degree.

Students interested in becoming an environmental engineer should take high school courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and math, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Engineering programs are accredited by ABET, and employers may prefer to hire candidates who have graduated from an accredited program. A degree from an ABET-accredited program is usually necessary for a person to become a licensed professional engineer.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Licensure is not required for entry-level positions as an environmental engineer. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE).

Each state issues its own licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements. Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their licenses.

After licensing, environmental engineers can earn board certification from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists. This certification shows that an environmental engineer has expertise in one or more areas of specialization.

Other Experience

During high school, students can attend engineering summer camps to see what these and other engineers, do. Attending these camps can help students plan their coursework for the remainder of their time in high school. 

Advancement

As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects and they have greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions. Eventually, environmental engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians.

Some may even become engineering managers or move into executive positions, such as program managers. However, before assuming a managerial position, an engineer most often works under the supervision of a more experienced engineer. For more information, see the profile on architectural and engineering managers.

Personality and Interests

Environmental engineers typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as an environmental engineer, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Environmental engineers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Imagination. Environmental engineers sometimes have to design systems that will be part of larger ones. They must be able to foresee how the proposed designs will interact with other components of the larger system, including the workers, machinery, and equipment, as well as the environment.

Interpersonal skills. Environmental engineers must be able to work with others toward a common goal. They usually work with engineers and scientists who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.

Problem-solving skills. When designing facilities and processes, environmental engineers strive to solve several issues at once, from workers’ safety to environmental protection. They must be able to identify and anticipate problems in order to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and mitigate environmental damage.

Reading skills. Environmental engineers often work with business people, lawyers, and other professionals outside their field. They frequently are required to read and understand documents with topics outside their scope of training.

Writing skills. Environmental engineers must be able to write clearly so that others without their specific training can understand their plans, proposals, specifications, findings, and other documents.

Pay

The median annual wage for environmental engineers was $88,860 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,330, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $142,070.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for environmental engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $105,410
Engineering services 89,050
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 86,540
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 84,300
State government, excluding education and hospitals 81,290

Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work more than 40 hours per week to monitor the project’s progress, ensure that deadlines are met, and recommend corrective action when needed.

Job Outlook

Employment of environmental engineers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

State and local governments’ concerns about water are leading to efforts to increase the efficiency of water use. Such a focus differs from that of wastewater treatment, for which this occupation is traditionally known. Most of the projected employment growth for environmental engineers is in professional, scientific, and technical services, as governments at the state and local levels draw on the industry to help address water efficiency concerns.

The federal government’s requirements to clean up contaminated sites are expected to help sustain demand for these engineers’ services. In addition, wastewater treatment is becoming a larger concern in areas of the country where drilling for shale gas requires the use and disposal of massive volumes of water.

Environmental engineers should continue to be needed to help utility companies and water treatment plants comply with federal or state environmental regulations, such as regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable for candidates who obtain a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Opportunities for environmental engineers should be good because of the need to replace workers who will be retiring.

For More Information

For more information about environmental engineers, visit

American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

For more information about education for engineers, visit

American Society for Engineering Education

For more information about accredited engineering programs, visit

ABET

For more information about becoming licensed as a professional engineer, visit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

National Society of Professional Engineers

For more information about engineering summer camps, visit

Engineering Education Service Center

CareerOneStop

For a career video on environmental engineers, visit

Environmental Engineers

 

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