Graduation season is upon us, and many new and aspiring civil engineers are turning their thoughts to their future career steps. At EBA Engineering, I work with a team of experienced geotechnical engineers who are involved in some fascinating projects like the Anacostia River Tunnel in Washington, DC. I’d like to tell you more about this lesser-known subset of civil engineering—geotechnical engineering—that is in-demand, pays well, and supports (literally) nearly every civil engineering project. Read on to see why geotechnical engineering might be the career for you!
What is geotechnical engineering?
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), geotechnical engineers use rock and soil mechanics to investigate the subsurface geologic conditions. These investigations are used to design and build foundations for structures, earthen structures, and pavement subgrades.
Geotechnical engineers tackle the geotechnical hazards and risks that are inherent in any civil engineering project. In other words, if it’s supported by soil or rock underneath, geotechnical engineers are responsible for finding practical solutions to make the project safe and sustainable.
Geotechnical engineers investigate and evaluate soil, rock, groundwater, and man-made materials and their interaction with earth retention systems, structure foundations, and other civil engineering works. They perform detailed soil investigations, which are required before building any new structure to avoid foundation failure. The results of these investigations are used to determine the nature and capacity of the soil to support a stable foundation. A geotechnical engineer must learn and understand ground hazards and risks and be able to find practical solutions to these issues.
How do I become a geotechnical engineer?
Because there’s a shortage of experienced geotechnical engineers, job prospects are good, and you can expect better-than-average job security. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 average median salary for a civil engineer with a bachelor’s degree was $86,640 a year, with double-digit projected job growth. So, what does it take to be a geotechnical engineer?
An entry-level position will not require a master’s degree, but you must earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a closely related field from an ABET-accredited school. Once your degree is complete, you will need to seek a professional engineer license in your state in order to work as an engineer, which usually involves becoming an engineer intern, gaining professional experience, and then taking the professional engineering exam.
A master’s degree in geotechnical engineering and additional work experience will help you become a senior geotechnical project manager or senior geotechnical engineer. You can also add extra credibility to your professional profile by earning formal certification as a Diplomate, Geotechnical Engineering (D.GE) from the Academy of Geo-Professionals.
In addition to their general civil engineering background, geotechnical engineers must gain the experience to understand geotechnical materials’ characteristics and behaviors, have acquired relevant practical experience in designing and executing geotechnical designs in the field, and have learned from case studies and others’ successes and failures.
To network with other professionals in the field, check out the ASCE Geo-Institute a prominent professional organization for members of the professional geotechnical engineering community. The International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering is also the world’s largest body for geotechnical engineers, representing contractors, researchers, and applied engineers.
What types of projects will I work on?
In an article for Forbes, James Marshall Crotty writes that “if you’ve ever wondered why John Lautner’s mid-century masterpiece, Chemosphere—which sits atop a 29-foot-high, 5-foot-wide concrete column—doesn’t slide off the Hollywood Hills, you can thank the geotechs who laid the intellectual groundwork for that amazing feat of engineering.” Geotechnical engineers have been intimately involved in every high-profile development project around the globe—like Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, or the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge, the world’s longest bridge—building these incredible structures to stand strong and resist earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other forces of nature.
In addition to these marvels of engineering, you can also thank geotechnical engineers for helping to make the everyday structures that impact our lives built to last, from bridges and tunnels to dams and highways.
For instance, EBA’s geotechnical engineering team is currently investigating large elevated and underground water tank reservoirs, enormous sewer system tunnels, road and airport pavements, bridges, retaining walls, natural slopes and embankments, and historical building foundations in and around Baltimore. We perform geotechnical engineering, soil testing, and soil sampling services, and we offer our own on-site laboratory services.
Many geotechnical engineers will work in the private sector for multidisciplinary engineering consulting firms like EBA. According to EnvironmentalScience.org, around one quarter of geotechnical engineers will work for state, federal, or local governments as engineers for public works and public utility improvement. They may be involved in the building of new highways, public buildings, and other civic features.
What other skills are important for geotechnical engineering?
As with all engineering fields, in daily practice, geotechnical engineers must have excellent communication skills. A large part of the job involves writing clear, concise, technically accurate reports. Geotechnical engineers must also be able to write about site characterizations, their implications on the design, and other analyses they perform in a way that even non-technical readers can understand.
Geotechnical engineers should also be prepared to work outdoors and in various environmental and weather conditions. They typically split their time between working on site and in offices. And geotechnical engineers should possess excellent computer skills, as they will be expected to use specialized geotechnical software programs and databases.
If this sounds like a good fit for you, I highly encourage you to pursue a rewarding and meaningful career in geotechnical engineering. If you are looking for open positions, check out EBA’s careers page to view our current job listings!
Hatem Abukhudair, PhD, PE, is a senior geotechnical engineer for EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 410.504.6110, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on LinkedIn.