Education and Training: College
Salary: Varies—see profile
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Highway engineers are civil engineers who plan and help build the thousands of miles of roads built across the country every year. There are three major branches of highway engineering: planning, research, and construction. Most highway engineers specialize in one of these areas.
Planning engineers work with city and regional planners. They try to figure out ways to relieve the traffic congestion in overcrowded areas. They analyze traffic patterns and keep abreast of the construction of new buildings that might cause future traffic problems. Highway engineers must also consider the effect new roads will have on the environment. These workers are usually employed by city, state, and federal governments, and by consulting firms used by government agencies. Highway planners may also work for transportation departments that control the transit systems of large cities.
Highway engineers who specialize in research are concerned with finding new ways and means for building highways. They investigate new machines and technology, new pavement designs, and improved maintenance operations. This research is the basis for well-planned and well-built highways. Research is usually conducted by federal agencies and by engineering colleges that employ highway engineers.
In construction, state-employed highway engineers supervise the contractors who have been chosen to build the new road. Highway engineers work on the site to check the quality of the work. They make sure the cost of the project is not greater than the amount of money that has been budgeted for it. Contractors sometimes employ highway engineers for the same purpose.
Highway engineers work with building materials such as concrete, earth, steel, and asphalt. They work or are familiar with a wide range of tools, from earthmoving equipment to computers.
Education and Training Requirements
A bachelor's degree in civil engineering from an accredited school is essential to enter the field. Some employers may require highway engineers to be licensed as professional engineers.
In highway engineering, the more education an applicant has, the better the job opportunities and the higher the pay. High school courses in physics, mathematics, mechanical drawing, and art are recommended. In civil engineering programs, college courses include stress analysis, engineering dynamics, and the mechanics of fluids and materials. Specialized courses in highway engineering include structural design, traffic control, surveying, and highway pavement design.
Summer jobs relating to highway construction provide valuable experience and possible contacts for future job opportunities. Part-time jobs in surveying or traffic study are excellent ways for a college student to gain experience. A highway engineer must have an aptitude for mathematics and estimating, as well as a strong sense of imagination and responsibility. An engineer must also have the ability to work with others.
Getting the Job
Many highway engineers work for federal, state, and local governments, which require applicants to take a civil service examination. A college graduate should contact the civil service directly. Placement services of colleges or engineering schools will know about job openings. To contact engineering firms directly, check the Yellow Pages under "Engineers—Civil," "Engineers—Consulting," and "Engineers—Highway." Newspaper classified ads and job banks on the Internet may also provide job leads.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
In most cases, advancement in this field depends on the ability of the worker. In state and municipal jobs, seniority is also a basis for advancement. Experienced highway engineers can become construction supervisors. They can supervise technical workers in engineering. Some engineers become project engineers or consulting engineers, while others become heads of construction firms.
Employment for highway engineers and other civil engineers will experience average growth for all jobs through the year 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Increased traffic and changing traffic patterns will spur the need for new roads and redesigned roads, so there will always be a need for highway engineers. Many job openings will arise with the retirement or transfer of current employees.
Highway engineers can work either outdoors or indoors. Where they work depends on the branch of highway engineering they pursue. Engineers who work outdoors can expect some discomfort because of the weather. Most highway work continues through the winter so no work time is lost. A highway engineer typically works a forty-hour week with extra pay for overtime. Engineers often put in extra hours when deadlines have to be met.
Earnings and Benefits
Many highway engineers work for the federal government, which determines salaries by civil service classifications, such as GS-7 or GS-13. The classifications are based on such factors as education, experience, and supervisory responsibilities. Generally, annual salaries range from about $40,600 to more than $77,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for civil engineers in 2004 was $64,230.
Where to Go for More Information
American Road and Transportation Builders Association
1219 28th St. NW
Washington, DC 20007-3389
American Society of Civil Engineers
1801 Alexander Bell Dr.
Reston, VA 20191-4440
American Society of Highway Engineers
113 Heritage Hills Rd.
Uniontown, PA 15401
Federal Highway Administration
400 7th St. SW
Washington, DC 20590
Most highway engineers work for state or municipal governments, which may pay salaries comparable to those of the U.S. government or far less, depending on geographical location. Private companies that hire highway engineers often pay salaries similar to those paid by the government, or more, to retain the best employees. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations and health and life insurance plans.