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Princeton Review: Update

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On August 2, 2005, I posted a message entitled "Definition of Structural Engineering for High School Students".  In that post, I explained that the Princeton Review is where many/most American high school students turn for career guidance.  I also provided a link to the Princeton Review's grossly incorrect definition of the structural engineering profession.

Many of you responded, to the point that the Princeton Review was soon inundated with complaints and suggestions.  They certainly got the message.  Then, with the help of Listserv veterans Jonathan Mallard and Gerard Madden, they set out to produce a more accurate definition of structural engineering.  The near-final result follows.  It is still less than ideal, but nevertheless a quantum leap improvement over the original.  As you read it, keep in mind that this definition is intended for a high school audience.

Regards,

Stan R. Caldwell, P.E.
Dallas, Texas

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Day in the Life

Structural engineers (SEs) deal with the frameworks and skeletons of buildings, bridges, towers, stadiums, tunnels, roller coasters, and monuments?in short, virtually every aspect of the world?s built environment.  SEs work with other engineers?mechanical, geotechnical, electrical, and civil?as well as urban planners and architects on projects as varied as the Louisiana Superdome, Channel Tunnel, Hoover Dam, and Sunshine Skyway Bridge.  The primary duty of a structural engineer is to ensure public safety and to serve the client?s interests while abiding by the appropriate standards and legal codes.  SEs design the components of a structure that hold its contents??contents? being people, vehicles, and property.  In buildings, SEs design roof framing (beams, rafters, joists, trusses), floor framing (floor decks, joists, beams, trusses, girders), arches, columns, braces, frames, foundations, and walls.  For bridges, they design the deck surface, girders or stringers, and piers.  They work with a broad range of materials, including steel, concrete, wood, masonry, and aluminum.

SEs must design structures to resist forces from gravity, earthquakes, high winds, water, collisions, and explosions.  They develop their designs by performing a complex series of calculations and by utilizing computer programs.  They then draw their results on a set of plans, and those drawings are used by contractors to price and build the structures in question.  The job is challenging but also highly rewarding; one SE notes, ?One of the greatest joys is seeing a project under construction and then walking into or driving on the finished product.?  Within the field of structural engineering, there are many specialties.  SEs may opt to specialize in working with certain types of buildings or bridges, or even certain types that are made of a particular material.  One may specialize in long-span bridges or even amusement park roller coasters, for example.  Established SEs advise that it is a good idea for engineers to become involved in the design and analysis of as many different structure types as possible early in their careers.  That way, young SEs may have a broad range of options open to them later on.

Paying Your Dues

SEs typically hold a college degree in structural engineering, civil engineering with an emphasis on structures, or architectural engineering.  Many even hold a master?s degree, and some have PhDs.  Course work typically includes physics, mechanics, blueprint reading, architecture, mathematics, and materials science.  A structural engineer must be familiar with all components and methods of construction.  Many states require that structural engineers have at least two years of experience in the construction industry and pass a written test that assesses their analytical skills and their knowledge of stress levels as well as local and federal construction codes.  Usually, just prior to or shortly after completing their bachelor?s degrees, engineering majors take an exam that, once passed, affords the test taker the designation of
engineer-in-training.  Early in their careers, SEs are mentored by senior staff.  They then seek to obtain professional licensure; this usually occurs four years after college graduation.

Associated Careers

Many structural engineers have a construction background, and they may opt to return to this field and become construction managers, materials purchasers, architectural assistants, and consultants to worksites.  SEs possess analytical abilities that make them well-suited to many professions, though.

Past and Future

Originally, engineering was a military activity.  Over time, though, the benefit of engineering in nonmilitary activities became recognized. Engineering came to be divided into two subdisciplines: military engineering and civil engineering.  From the latter, other subdisciplines soon emerged: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical and petroleum engineering, and of course, structural engineering, among others.  Some particularly well-known structural engineers include Washington Roebling (the Brooklyn Bridge), Gustave Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower), and William Le Baron Jenney (the Home Insurance Building in Chicago).

The demand for structural engineers is driven largely by the demand for construction.  As new innovations in software, construction, and materials arise, the demand for trained SEs is expected to remain strong.

Quality of Life

Two Years:  Structural engineers probably still have the designation of engineers-in-training at this point.  Many continue to be supervised and mentored by veteran SEs.  The hours can become longer as SEs begin to make the transition from doing planning to doing planning as well as on-site work.

Five Years:  At five years into the profession, many SEs have become licensed and operate independently.  They are beginning to work on larger-scale projects.  The hours and salaries increase, and satisfaction is high.

Ten Years:  At this point, the veteran SE is likely mentoring young as-yet-unlicensed engineers.  He or she has developed a specialty and built a solid reputation.  SEs at this stage of their careers have a lot of autonomy in determining which projects to assume.  Some of them work long hours because they are dedicated to their work.  Salaries increase while required hours decrease; satisfaction is high.

Professional Profile

# of people in profession 80,000
Avg. hours per week 45
Avg. starting salary $41,669
Avg. salary after 5 years $60,070
Avg. salary 10 to 15 years $74,700