Structural engineers are creative innovators, they use maths and science to design structures, solve problems, and shape the world around them

Structural engineers design structures to withstand stresses and pressures imposed through environmental conditions and human use. They ensure buildings and other structures do not deflect, rotate, vibrate excessively or collapse and that they remain stable and secure throughout their use. They also examine existing buildings and structures to test if they are structurally sound and still fit for purpose.

Working in close partnership with architects and other professional engineers they help to design most structures, including houses, hospitals, office blocks, bridges, oil rigs, ships and aircraft. It is the structural engineer’s responsibility to choose the appropriate materials, such as concrete, steel, timber and masonry, to meet design specifications and they are often involved in inspecting the work and advising contractors.

Responsibilities

As a structural engineer you’ll need to:

  • analyse configurations of the basic structural components of a building or other structure;
  • calculate the pressures, stresses and strains that each component, such as a beam or lintel, will experience from other parts of the structure due to human use or environmental pressures such as weather or earthquakes;
  • consider the strength of various materials, e.g. timber, concrete, steel and brick, to see how their inclusion may necessitate a change of structural design;
  • liaise with other designers, including architects, to agree on safe designs and their fit with the aesthetic concept of the construction;
  • examine structures at risk of collapse and advising how to improve their structural integrity, such as recommending removal or repair of defective parts or rebuilding the entire structure;
  • make drawings, specifications and computer models of structures for building contractors;
  • work with geotechnical engineers to investigate ground conditions and analyse results of soil sample and in-situ tests;
  • liaise with construction contractors to ensure that newly erected buildings are structurally sound;
  • apply expert knowledge of the forces that act on various structures;
  • use computers and computer-aided design (CAD) technology for simulation purposes.

Salary

  • Salaries for new graduate trainees typically range from £22,000 to £28,000.
  • Structural engineers with one to three years’ experience usually earn between £27,000 to 35,000.
  • Salaries at senior level/for those with significant experience range from £40,000 to £70,000. The higher end of the scale is reached by those who have chartered status.

Some companies offer additional benefits, such as a company car and private health insurance.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with some occasional evening and weekend work where necessary. Self-employment is possible as the building of a structure involves projects that are put out to tender. Some structural engineers work on a contract basis (and become known as 'contract engineers') and some set up their own consultancies.

Career breaks are possible once you are qualified. Stay up to date with progressions in the industry and get help with finding work again by becoming a member of The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE).

What to expect

  • The work is office-based with occasional visits to construction sites in order to visit other professionals and clients, or to measure progress of a building project.
  • When visiting sites, appropriate safety equipment needs to be worn.
  • Approximately 85% of engineering graduates are men. Various organisations aim to redress this imbalance by encouraging more women into engineering careers, these include WISE and Equate Scotland.
  • Travel during the working day is common to visit sites. Working away from home on a project is also possible from time to time, especially for senior structural engineers and project managers.
  • As an engineering consultant, you can work on projects anywhere in the world, for example repair projects following large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.

Qualifications

The career of a structural engineer is open to graduates of civil or structural engineering. If you have a degree in another engineering or science discipline, you may also be able to enter the profession, but it could take longer and you may be limited as to how far you can progress.

Graduates of non-civil or structural engineering courses are encouraged to study for an MSc in structural engineering before joining the profession.

Graduate structural engineers work towards the professional qualifications of Associate Member and Chartered Member with IStructE. To become an Associate Member (AMIStructE), you must have a degree that is accredited by the IStructE. A list of accredited courses is available from the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM). Some equivalent qualifications may also be accepted. Contact the IStructE for full details.

To progress on to become a Chartered Member (MIStructE) with the IStructE, you will need to have an accredited Masters qualification or equivalent. A list of relevant courses is available on the JBM website.

Search for postgraduate courses in structural engineering.

Entry without a degree is possible if you hold a national diploma-level qualification in structural/civil engineering or equivalent. However, you will only be able to progress to a Technician Member (TIStructE). You will need further qualifications to progress onto the Associate or Chartered memberships.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • good analytical and problem-solving skills;
  • strong mathematical ability;
  • computer literacy;
  • a grasp of physics;
  • three-dimensional conceptual skills;
  • excellent oral and written communication skills;
  • diagrammatic skills;
  • the ability to teamwork;
  • attention to detail;
  • the ability to liaise well with professionals from other disciplines;
  • an interest in the design and structure of buildings.

Work experience

Doing some relevant work experience or a work placement is a great way to develop skills and it will enable you to evidence your competence and commitment in job applications and interviews. Many degree courses offer a year in industry.

These experiences can provide valuable opportunities for building contacts and networking, which may lead to future job opportunities.

Employers

Most structural engineers work in engineering consultancies. These range from large international companies, to small firms run by one person. The large companies, often offering a full 'design and build' service, provide a high level of training, a broad range of work and opportunities for international travel. Smaller firms, often contracting engineers for projects, tend to specialise in specific areas of engineering, and the geographical spread of their clients is less extensive

Other employers include:

  • aircraft manufacturers;
  • local authorities;
  • oil companies;
  • railway operators.

University departments employ structural engineers as researchers and lecturers. You can make speculative applications using Find an Engineer to search for structural engineering practices.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies specialising in engineering vacancies include:

Professional development

As a graduate structural engineer you will work towards the professional status of Associate or Chartered Member with the IStructE.

To do this you must meet three requirements:

  • Completion of required educational base - for Associate Member this is an accredited degree; for Chartered Membership it is an accredited Masters.
  • Initial Professional Development (IPD) - trainees gain experience in the workplace, which is matched against specific core objectives identified by IStructE. Many employers offer structured training schemes to ensure these requirements are met.
  • Professional review - comprising an interview with qualified engineers and a final examination.

This whole process can take three to four years. You can opt to take IPD accredited by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and then the final exam of the IStructE, or to follow the direct route of training accredited by IStructE. Many structural engineers qualify with both institutions, as it affords more career flexibility later.

Once you have achieved professional status with the IStructE, you can choose to become registered with the Engineering Council, taking on the designation of either Incorporated Engineer (IEng) or Chartered Engineer (CEng).

Career prospects

Starting as construction designers, structural engineers soon move on to become project managers. They may work alone, liaising closely with all the other construction professionals involved, or as part of a project team. Most large organisations have a formal progression structure, but if you work for a smaller company, you may need to move to another employer to progress.

Career options include, moving from an engineering consultancy to a construction company or vice versa; working as a self-employed contract engineer or setting up your own consultancy; teaching or research work.

There are also many opportunities to move to other parts of the UK and to work on international projects. Gaining chartered status with the IStructE allows for professional recognition in an increasing number of countries around the world.

Chartered Members can go on to become Fellows of the IStructE once they have built up a significant amount of experience and have met an exacting set of standards. This is the most senior grade of membership available and is recognition of excellence in structural engineering.