What Does a Structural Engineer Do? (Definition and Skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 2, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Structural engineering is a vital discipline that involves designing and constructing secure and reliable structures. This civil engineering specialization is suitable for individuals with good mathematical, scientific, critical reasoning, quantitative, and problem-solving abilities. If you're considering a career in engineering, becoming a structural engineer is a career path you can explore. In this article, we explain a structural engineer's job duties, discuss what the career entails, explore where these professionals can work, share steps to become one, and outline the necessary skills.

What does a structural engineer do?

Structural engineers are in charge of developing structures capable of withstanding load and stress. Buildings, roads, and other structures require a certain level of flexibility to withstand heavy winds while remaining solid enough to endure earthquakes, hurricanes, and other hazardous circumstances. Structural engineers typically consider the bending, twisting, and vibrating properties of various materials. They design using mathematical and scientific methods to guarantee the security and integrity of each building project. These engineers conduct research on and assess different materials, construction techniques, and structural solutions to create more practical, cost-effective, and secure methods of designing and constructing critical structures.

A structural engineer's responsibilities may include the following:

  • calculating the potential tensions and strains that a structure may undergo

  • conducting research and assessing risks in a particular location, such as waves crashing against coastal structures

  • developing and refining models with the aid of computer software

  • analyzing the structural integrity of older structures

  • making recommendations for maintenance, expansions, and other modifications to existing buildings

  • developing and validating models for their safety and stability

  • collaborating on structural planning and construction with architects and other contractors

  • assuring that constructions adhere to applicable building regulations, legal requirements, and health and safety standards

Read more: 20 Types of Engineering Careers

What is structural engineering?

Structural engineering is a specialized branch of civil engineering concerned with the effects of physical force on load-bearing elements. Structural engineering quantifies physical forces and determines how various structural components may react to these forces. Professionals usually go through an extensive assessment and design phase to execute any structural engineering project properly. The engineer evaluates observed forces, develops models that can endure them, and performs reliability and performance testing on the models.

Structural engineering applies to any structure that endures vertical or horizontal loads. Vertical loads, also referred to as gravity loads, include the combined weight of all building components, such as the floors, walls, mechanical components, and furniture. Additionally, the building residents or the automobiles on a bridge contribute to the gravity load. Horizontal loads, referred to as lateral loads, include winds, eruptions, and earthquakes. These are often unforeseen, yet buildings require reliable designs that enable them to endure these forces.

What's the distinction between a structural engineer and a civil engineer?

Structural engineering is a subfield of civil engineering. Civil engineering incorporates a range of subfields, including environmental and transportation engineering. The minimum requirement to enter this field is a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. Structural engineers may require a further step in their studies by enrolling in a postgraduate structural engineering program. Structural engineering is a specialized discipline that expands on the fundamental knowledge provided to civil engineers.

Related: How to Create a Civil Engineer Resume (With Tips and Sample)

Where do structural engineers work?

Structural engineers may outsource sections of the project to subcontractors and can also serve as team leaders, coordinating and supervising all on-site operations related to their structural designs. They typically focus on a specific industry. Doing this can help familiarize them with the particular issues and requirements unique to their field of expertise. Structural engineers work on a variety of designs, including the following:

  • airports

  • dams

  • highways

  • coastal and marine structures

  • buildings

  • canals

  • bridges

  • energy and power plants

Can structural engineers work as consultants or contractors?

Structural engineers usually operate as either contractors or consultants. Consultants may spend most of their day in an office setting. They devise ideas, oversee projects, and produce blueprints or evaluations. These engineers often spend most of their time at desks and maintain a conventional weekday routine. They may sometimes work extra hours to meet important deadlines. They may attend building sites occasionally, although this accounts for only a minor amount of their time. Contractor structural engineers typically spend most of their day on the project site. They are responsible for the practical aspects of engineering, such as coordinating construction crews and carefully monitoring projects during construction.

Related: 15 of the Highest Paying Jobs in Engineering (With Salaries)

How to become a structural engineer

Structural engineers require specialized education. The steps below can help you prepare for a profession as a structural engineer:

1. Complete a bachelor's degree

Structural engineers require a bachelor's degree in civil or structural engineering. If your university doesn't offer structural engineering as a bachelor's degree, you can focus on structural engineering electives such as steel structure design and concrete structure design. These degree programs typically last between three and four years. Confirm that the program you enroll in is recognized by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), the institution that formally authorizes engineering degree programs in Canada. You can find out if a university offers an approved program via the Engineers Canada website.

2. Register with the regulatory agency in your location

After earning a bachelor's degree, you can register as an engineer-in-training with the provincial or territorial regulatory authority or organization. As each organization has its unique specifications, it's important to identify them before signing up to help guarantee they acknowledge your application. You can also join bodies like the Canada Structural Engineers Association, which may offer opportunities for career advancement, including information sharing and career counselling.

3. Acquire job experience

You require four years of professional experience under the guidance of a professional engineer to be eligible for the engineering examination. Experience in the field can help guarantee that you continue to learn in a stable setting following graduation. During this time, you can acquire the soft and hard skills necessary to excel in your profession.

Related: How to Become an Engineer (With Tips)

4. Complete the Professional Engineering Exam

You can sit for the Professional Engineering Exam after you've acquired the required work experience and satisfied all other criteria of your province or territory's engineering body. The exam may have varying names depending on your location. For instance, it's the National Professional Practice Examination (NPPE) in every location apart from British Columbia and Ontario.

Taking the exam requires you to enroll and pay a fee, and it's available on fixed dates across the year. You have two and a half hours to answer 110 multiple-choice questions covering six distinct areas. By completing this exam, you can earn the title of a professional engineer.

5. Consider pursuing a master's degree

Obtaining an advanced degree, such as a master's degree in structural engineering, can help increase your employability. This program can equip you with the extensive knowledge necessary to maintain your competitiveness in the job market. On average, this program takes between one and two years, but this may differ according to the university and specialization chosen.

Structural engineer skills

Here are some essential skills for a structural engineer:

Leadership skills

As a structural engineer, you are entirely accountable for your team's work throughout the project's lifecycle, from design to delivery. You may work with a range of professionals, including technicians, construction managers, surveyors, and architects. You may also be responsible for guiding all these professionals toward the common objective of project completion.

Decision-making skills

Due to the intricacy of the stages and objectives associated with construction and infrastructure projects in both the public and private sectors, a structural engineer's role involves making critical and delicate judgments. Some of these decisions imply conflicting priorities. For instance, these professionals may need to find the appropriate balance between working within imposed timeframes and remaining within the allocated budget.

Numerical skills

Structural engineers analyze, plan, and supervise the execution of their projects using complex concepts of geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and other mathematical skills. Due to the size and significance of the public projects for which they may be responsible, the role involves carefully evaluating every detail.

Read more: What Is an Engineer in Training? A Complete Guide

Communication skills

Structural engineers may find it necessary to maintain constant communication with diverse individuals, ranging from contractors to senior management and the general public. Completing a project may require a structural engineer to convey their ideas effectively verbally and in writing. Additionally, this communication may involve highly technical language, which these professionals explain to non-technical investors in simple-to-understand principles.

Problem-solving and multitasking skills

As a structural engineer, your position may require you to apply your knowledge and experience to produce effective, reliable, and cost-effective strategies throughout the development process. Usually, a structural engineer engages in many sub-projects concurrently. Their role requires them to prioritize and carefully focus on vital factors while maintaining close attention to detail.

IT skills

Modern projects make extensive use of various computer technologies to generate intricate designs. As a result, structural engineers require knowledge of various software programs. These programs may include AutoCAD and industry or project-specific software.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions, or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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