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Have you ever considered a career in civil engineering? If so, read on! In this interview with a civil engineer, she shares what it is like working in a male dominated field, and shares the lessons she had to learn the hard way, and how she finds pride in seeing her work as she drives through town.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I work as a Civil Engineer. I have been working in this field for about five years, prior to which I worked as a Mining Engineer for about two years.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I’m a white female. Engineering is a field that is dominated by men. I’ve worked at three different companies, and I’ve only had a fellow female engineering colleague once. In fact, at most companies I’ve worked for the only women are myself and the front office secretary. I have experienced sexism is several different forms. I’ve had several clients refer to me as “the secretary”, and one who insisted that I show him my license to practice engineering before he would let me be on a project team. Getting good assignments and training can be difficult. At one company I wasn’t allowed to go to a CAD training seminar since the budget was based on everyone doubling up in hotel rooms. Instead of paying for a room for the only female engineer, I was given a training CD.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: A lot of people assume that civil engineers build bridges. I’ve actually never designed a bridge. A lot of my work focuses on stormwater drainage. I work in Florida, and most of my projects are residential and commercial developments. I design the water and sewer systems, layout the power lines and roads, and design the drainage systems.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rate my job satisfaction at a 6. When working for a consulting firm, the hours are long and fairly inflexible. The pay is good, however. Personally, I prefer working in the field to sitting at a desk, and right now my job involves a lot more computer design than getting samples and working on construction sites.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: To be completely honest, I got into this field for the money. Within a few years of working, I’ve bought two homes and paid off all my debt but my mortgages. A few of my colleagues truly love this line of work, but to be totally honest, there are some aspects of this job that can get boring. Recently, I’ve really started looking into setting up my own consultant firm. I want the ability to pick my own projects and set my own hours.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: My B.S. was actually in Engineering Physics. I originally wanted to work in aerospace, but several years ago my husband got a job in a more remote area and I ended up working in civil engineering.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I would have picked a degree in Civil Engineering from a cheaper school. Taking out student loans to go to a private engineering school didn’t really help me to get a better job. Getting a harder degree like Engineering Physics didn’t do much good for me, either. Employers care more about my computer skills than my math skills, I wish that I had focused on that more in school.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I should have started documenting my work hours and projects more carefully. In this field, it is very common for companies to lay off groups of engineers en masse when a big project ends. Once, I showed up to work and was called into a meeting with four other engineers. We were handed cardboard boxes to pack up our desks and told due to budget cuts we were out of a job. I had to apply for new jobs in the field without any portfolio of work I had done for the past year. I had no references from anyone I had worked with, either. I was able to find a job again fairly quickly, but I started at a lower salary since my new company had to “take a chance” with me.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: The most important thing I’ve learned is that the best engineers aren’t made in school. They’re the people with the real world experience.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: I once had a client who wanted me to include a hunting preserve in the middle of a residential subdivision. He had bought property that had a protected wetland in the middle, and thought he could turn it into a duck hunting area. He couldn’t understand why the local zoning board wouldn’t let him build it.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I go to work to earn money. I like seeing the things I design get built, I like being able to drive home and point at a subdivision and say “I built that.”

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: I don’t like clients who change their mind a lot. I once went through 15 different designs of the same piece of property while the client waffled between wanting townhouses or apartments or single-family homes. I was ready to walk away from that.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: The hours for this job are long. I start work at 8 and often won’t be home until 6 or 7. When I didn’t have kids, I didn’t mind that. After I had kids, I went down to part-time work because I couldn’t find a daycare I was happy with for that long.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: For full-time work, civil engineers make around $85,000 a year where I live. In good years, we also get a bonus of about $10,000. My boss makes about $150,000 a year, but that includes profit-sharing.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I got 15 days a year when I worked full-time. That was all my personal and sick leave. When I got pregnant, there was no way I could make doctor’s appointments and only miss 15 days of work a year.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: A bachelor’s degree in engineering and CAD skills.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: The money is good, but the hours are long.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: Hopefully, in five years I’ll have a consultancy firm off the ground. I think that owning my own business in this field is what I want to do.