How to Become an Environmental Engineer: Requirements and Skills

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An environmental engineer holding a folder stands in front of solar panels.Pollution causes 15% of all deaths, according to a recent Global Alliance on Health and Pollution report (GAHP). Contaminated rivers, oceans, and water resources lead to disease, including cancer and gastrointestinal illness. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the U.S. emits 68 million tons of air pollutants every year, harming health, destroying the environment, and spurring on climate change.

Environmental engineers have expertise in everything from the design of industrial systems that are gentle on the environment to environmental cleanup. This makes them key players in environmental protection, preservation, and improvement. People interested in learning how to become an environmental engineer benefit from understanding the steps to pursue a career in this important field.

Types of Environmental Engineer Jobs

Environmental engineers can make a positive impact on the planet in various ways. By applying engineering principles in chemistry, biology, and soil science, they identify solutions for various environmental problems.

Environmental engineers may help communities achieve responsible land management or innovate ways to lower air emissions. This can involve diverse tasks, from designing industrial filters that minimize the number of pollutants released into the air to rehabilitating wetlands.

Professionals in the field can choose from various environmental engineer jobs that align with their passions and interests. Typically, these jobs address one or more of the following environmental issues:

Waste Management

Environmental engineers often work in waste management, focusing on the treatment and disposal of waste, such as sewage, chemical waste, and municipal solid waste (garbage that municipalities collect). They strive to find ways to limit the impact of waste on the environment.

Their work may involve designing secure landfills for hazardous waste or improving systems that treat wastewater. Environmental engineers may also develop special methods for safely disposing of industrial waste or innovate techniques for reusing or recycling various types of waste.

For example, an engineering company based out of the Netherlands has developed a method to recycle plastic into roads that can last much longer than asphalt. A Texas-based company produces durable roofing material out of the recycled waste that would otherwise end up in landfills.

Environmental Remediation

The term “environmental remediation” refers to the process of removing contaminants from both water and soil. This can involve large-scale restoration projects that require cleaning up sites once used for disposing of hazardous waste. It can also involve less complex and shorter-term projects, such as cleaning up an oil spill caused by a road accident.

Water and Soil Remediation

Environmental engineers may carry out water or soil remediation. Water remediation can clean lakes, streams, and rivers contaminated by polluted runoff or air pollutants. It also helps purify contaminated groundwater; contamination can happen when pollutants seep through the soil. Industrial practices, such as oil drilling and fracking, can also pollute groundwater.

Soil remediation aims to revitalize contaminated soil. Industrial practices can pollute soil, as can chemical spills, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Remediation Methods

Environmental engineers employ various methods and technologies to restore polluted environments. These may include the following:

  • Site assessment and mapping. First, environmental engineers assess the contaminants present and their impact on the environment. Next, they determine which technologies can most effectively fix the problems. Then, they estimate costs and required resources.
  • Excavation and dredging. Excavation typically involves hauling away contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil. Dredging uses special equipment to pump out contaminated sediments underwater in lakes, rivers, etc.
  • Soil vapor extraction. Soil vapor extraction involves injecting air or steam into the ground to extract vapors and treat them.

Water Resources

Environmental engineers working in water resources management design systems and equipment for wastewater and sewage disposal. They also build systems that protect against floods. Their work may involve constructing and maintaining reservoirs, levees, and sea defense walls. It can also require charting drainage systems to improve water flow.

Other responsibilities may include the following:

  • Conducting water quality analyses
  • Assessing flood plain drainage systems
  • Devising water runoff connection systems
  • Engineering wastewater pipelines and pump systems

Air Pollution Control

Environmental engineers help address air pollution in numerous ways. During the development of factories and industrial complexes, they analyze what pollutants the production process will generate. Then they make recommendations on strategies and technologies that can lower harmful emissions. They may also write a review that reports the projected environmental impact of the planned installation.

Environmental engineers advise organizations on air quality regulations to ensure compliance. Additionally, environmental engineers tackling air pollution may design technological solutions, such as:

  • Regenerative incinerators (a process that converts pollutants into harmless byproducts, water vapor, and usable energy)
  • Emission filtration systems
  • Ventilation systems

How Long Does It Take to Become an Environmental Engineer?

The length of time it takes to become an environmental engineer can depend on various factors. The types of degrees one choose to pursue affect when someone enters the field, as does individual purpose.

To get an entry-level environmental engineering position, one needs a bachelor’s degree, which generally takes four years to complete. However, many environmental engineers choose to continue with a master’s degree, which usually adds two more years of study.

The Importance of Civil  Engineering Internships

Those interested in becoming an environmental engineer may also consider the value of gaining experience through internship programs. Internships, whether paid or unpaid, offer important opportunities to gain work experience and apply classroom learning.

For example, an environmental engineering intern may participate in contractor oversight, monitoring processes on a job site for safety. Interns may also take part in inspecting electrical systems to ensure code compliance.

Environmental engineering students often secure internships with private firms. They usually will need to have a 3.0 GPA or higher to be eligible to apply. The EPA and other governmental agencies also offer internship opportunities in all areas of environmental work.

Some internship positions require applicants to already hold an environmental engineering degree. Recent graduates of electrical engineering programs may seek these internships to get their foot in the door of an organization where they want to work.

Internship programs often serve as a pipeline to full-time employment. Paid internships in particular tend to become permanent positions.

Examples of internships may include the following:

Environmental Planning Internship

An environmental planning internship can provide experience in regulatory compliance in projects involving infrastructure, water transportation, and energy. Additionally, the intern may have a chance to work in various development projects, from urban planning to infill development (redeveloping underused space within a community).

Environmental Project Analyst Internship

Electrical engineering students with experience in laboratory analysis may want to apply for an environmental project analyst internship. This may give them the opportunity to assess waste reduction practices and determine areas for improvement. They may visit project sites and participate in data collection.

Dredging Internship

Individuals interested in environmental remediation may want to pursue an internship in dredging. This will give participants a chance to learn about the documentation process of dredging as well as how to ensure that projects comply with plans and specs.

Environmental Engineer Education Requirements

To become an environmental engineer, one must meet specific education requirements. They include the following:

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

Environmental engineers must complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from a program that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has accredited. This undergraduate degree offers a strong foundation in science, mathematics, and engineering principles that are important in the field.

More advanced coursework covers topics such as:

  • Water treatment
  • Air quality management
  • Environmental remediation
  • Pollution control technologies

Graduates become eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, a step in the process of getting professional licensure.

Step 2: Get Professionally Licensed

Environmental engineers benefit from obtaining a Professional Engineer (PE) license. This license indicates a higher level of knowledge and experience in environmental engineering. Those licensed can hold leadership positions and work with greater independence.

Responsibilities that set PEs apart from other engineers include their ability to:

  • Sign off on engineering plans waiting for public authority approval
  • Oversee other engineers in leadership roles
  • Assume high-level engineering positions in many governmental agencies
  • Hold environmental engineering teaching positions

After completing their bachelor’s degree, environmental engineers seeking a PE license must complete several steps.

Take the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam

With an undergraduate degree in engineering, a person qualifies for the FE exam. This competency test measures a person’s knowledge of key engineering principles, environmental chemistry, and environmental legal regulations.

After passing the exam, one becomes an engineer in training (EIT). As such, individuals can find entry-level positions in the field and gain valuable work experience essential to becoming a PE.

Gain Work Experience

To become a PE, one must first complete at least four years of work experience under a PE, either in an internship or entry-level position. This helps build expertise in a focus area and bolsters one’s resume. After fulfilling this core requirement, EITs can sit for the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.

Take the Professional Engineering Exam

The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) oversees the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. Passing this exam qualifies engineers to apply for a license in the state where they want to work. States issue their own licenses; however, most recognize licenses from other states so long as they have equivalent requirements.

As PEs, environmental engineers can also choose to become certified with the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES). Environmental engineers pursue this certification to show their expertise in a specific area of the discipline.

Both licensure and certification in environmental engineering play an important role in career advancement.

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree, such as a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, can open up many opportunities for engineers wanting to jump-start their careers. It can also increase one’s earning potential.

Environmental engineers can use their master’s degrees to gain specialized knowledge. Coursework examines topics covered in bachelor’s programs but on a much deeper level. Students in these programs may delve into chemical, biological, and physical remediation techniques or dig into the strategies and theories critical to water and wastewater treatment.

They also have the opportunity to take classes in project management that can prove very useful in their careers. It’s worth mentioning that most employers prefer candidates with a master’s degree to fill advanced or leadership positions.

Environmental Engineer Skills

Successful environmental engineers have a combination of soft and technical skills that allow them to carry out their responsibilities effectively and efficiently. The competencies fundamental to the profession include the following:

Analytical and Critical Thinking Skills

Much of what environmental engineers do requires analysis and critical thinking. To start, environmental engineers spend a good deal of time collecting data, such as information about air quality, water runoff, or soil erosion. Then, they assess this data and use their findings to design remediation programs, wastewater systems, secure landfills, and so on.

Site assessment and mapping, for example, requires environmental engineers to analyze both contaminants and the best methods for removing them. To perform accurate inspections of drainage or pump systems, environmental engineers also need to both assimilate and logically assess data to come to accurate conclusions and respond accordingly.

Problem-Solving Skills

Addressing environmental issues involves constant problem-solving. Whether designing runoff connection systems or developing a spill prevention program, environmental engineers run into obstacles that require them to think with ingenuity.

To prevent pollution, environmental engineers constantly seek alternative processes that can limit emissions or reduce the impact on land and ecosystems. For example, when developing a  program, they must engage in problem-solving to prevent industrial site toxins from entering reservoirs. To repurpose waste into useful materials, environmental engineers need to think unconventionally to arrive at solutions.

Knowledge of Environmental Technologies

Environmental engineers constantly use technology, from software programs to robotics to specialized equipment. Technological proficiency can greatly expand an environmental engineer’s capacity to make assessments and solve problems.

The various specialty areas of environmental engineering have technologies specific to them. Additionally, some technology can apply to the work of almost any environmental engineer. Examples of both types include the following:

GIS

A geographic information system (GIS) stores and analyzes spatial and geographic information. It can help environmental engineers see patterns and relationships in the environment to make more informed decisions in their projects.

For example, an environmental engineer may use a GIS to build databases on samples of groundwater. The engineer can use these databases to inform remediation projects.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing involves capturing information about a geographical location from a distance using technology such as drones. It can enable environmental engineers to better visualize environmental problems and better monitor the environment, among other things.

For example, environmental engineers working on a mine closure may use remote sensing to understand waste rock landforms or erosions that the mine has created.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Advanced writing, speaking, and interpersonal skills empower environmental engineers to promote the importance of environmental protection and preservation to the public and policymakers.

These skills also come into play when environmental engineers work with scientists, hazardous-waste technicians, urban planners, and other engineers on restoration projects or other projects that aim to lighten the environmental impact of the industry.

Additionally, environmental engineers regularly write reports detailing a project’s progression and outcome, along with recommendations about how to address issues such as land management problems or poor air quality. Finally, environmental engineers may need to write about their research, prepare permit applications, or draft technical reviews of inspections they conduct.

Environmental Engineer Salary

Environmental engineers earned a median annual salary of $92,120 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners made as much as $144,670. Level of education, years of experience, industry, and job location can all play a role in salary differences.

For example, environmental engineers working for the federal government tend to have higher salaries.  BLS data shows that their median annual income was $110,250 as of May 2020. Those working for state governments, on the other hand, tend to earn less. BLS data shows they earned around $82,990.

The BLS projects a 4% growth rate for environmental engineers between 2020 and 2030. This falls short of the projected average growth rate for all occupations. However, government efforts to address contaminated sites and growing concerns about wastewater treatment will likely boost the demand for environmental engineers.

Play a Key Role in the World’s Future

Whether through waste management, innovative land use planning, or soil remediation, environmental engineers can play a key role in safeguarding the environment and protecting the future.

Learn more about how to become an environmental engineer and launch a successful career in the field by exploring Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Transportation Engineer: Steps Toward a Dynamic Career in Civil Engineering

How Women in Engineering Proudly Raise Their Flag and Pursue Their Dreams

What Is Construction Engineering? Exploring Careers, Salaries, and Educational Requirements

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Zippia, What Does a Water Resources Engineer Do?