Environmental Engineers

Environmental engineers use the principles of chemistry and biology to improve the environment. They utilize technology to improve air and water quality, increase the efficiency of recycling technology, and develop processes to safely dispose of water. Environmental engineers conduct research to evaluate potential hazards, discover solutions to contain hazards, and then develop strategies to prevent hazards from causing environmental damage. Environmental engineers also design municipal industrial wastewater treatment and water supply facilities. They also determine the environmental impact of potential construction projects and perform quality control. Environmental engineers develop technology to address any problem, so they focus on strategies to minimize the negative effects of car emissions, ozone depletion, and global warming. They can also devote themselves to wildlife preservation and provide consulting to manufactures concerned about environmental protections.

Work Environment
Environmental engineers hold over 51,000 jobs. Their work is quite varied, and they spend their time in a wide range of settings:

  • Environmental engineers typically work in offices when they are collaborating with urban and regional planners, or with other engineers
  • They often present information at seminars, discussing various topics and answering questions
  • They also work at specific outdoor worksites, often in collaboration with environmental scientists and hazardous waste technicians

Roughly one-third of all environmental engineers are employed by the federal, state or local government:

  • Architectural, engineering, and related services – 28%
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services – 19%
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – 15%
  • Federal government, excluding postal service – 8%
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals – 8%

How to Become an Environmental Engineer
A bachelor's degree in environmental engineering or similar focus (like chemical, mechanical, or civil engineering) is required to become an environmental engineer. Engineers with practical experience are particularly valuable to employers, which is why cooperative programs--programs which provide the student with on-the-job training--are so beneficial. Engineers who are professionally licensed are at a competitive advantage in the search for jobs.


Students who want to become an environmental engineer should study biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics (trigonometry, algebra, and calculus).

A bachelor's degree is necessary for nearly all jobs in environmental engineering. Undergraduate students of environmental engineering study in classrooms, laboratories, as well as the field, and programs usually last four years. Cooperative programs are available at many universities and colleges. These programs combine classroom study with a structured job experience, giving students valuable practical experience while they're still earning their degree.

Many universities also offer five-year programs in environmental engineering. Students who complete these programs receive a master's degree as well as a bachelor's degree. Engineers who hold a master's degree or higher are able to teach at universities and work on research and development projects.


Becoming licensed as a professional engineer (PE) is very beneficial for an engineer's career. In order to become licensed, an engineer must:

  • Earn a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Gain practical work experience
  • Pass the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

As soon as the engineer graduates, he or she may take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. If the engineer passes this exam, he or she becomes known as an engineer intern (EI), or an engineer in training (EIT). The next exam is called the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, and can only be taken after the EI has gained enough experience on the job.

Each state's licensure requirements are different. Some states require engineers to take continuing education courses in order to maintain their license. State licenses are typically recognized in other states, unless the other state's requirements exceed those of the licensing state.

The median salary of an environmental engineer is more than $78,000 a year. The median salary is the salary at which 50% of the workers earned more and 50% earned less. The lowest 10% of engineers earn less than $49,000 a year, and the highest 10% earn more than $119,000 a year.

The following table shows the industries which employ the most environmental engineers, as well as the median salary of engineers in those industries:

  • Federal government, excluding postal service – $100,270
  • Architectural, engineering, and related services – $78,450
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals – $75,280
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services – $74,940
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – $69,050

Environmental engineers typically work 40 hours a week, although overtime is common for engineers who manage projects.

Job Outlook
It's estimated that job prospects for environmental engineers will grow by 22% in the next decade. This growth is faster than usual, when compared to the average occupation.

Water conservation is becoming a pressing issue for state and local governments, and more focused effort is being made towards increasing water use efficiency. This is different than the treatment of wastewater, the task usually associated with environmental engineers.

The demand for environmental engineers is rising as the federal government is allocating more resources toward the cleaning of contaminated sites. Also, there has been an increase in the drilling for shale gas, a process which generates enormous amounts of wastewater. The treatment of this wastewater is an urgent issue which will require the expertise of environmental engineers. As federal and state regulations change regarding the environmental impact of treatment plants and utilities, environmental engineers will be needed to help the facilities make appropriate upgrades.

Job prospects for environmental engineers will be especially stable in the government sector, because federal environmental regulations must be observed by all levels of government, in all states.

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