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.
Structural engineers help to design most structures including:
- sports venues;
- office blocks;
- oil rigs;
- space satellites;
They work in close partnership with architects and other professional engineers.
Structural engineers have to choose appropriate materials, such as concrete, steel, timber and masonry, to meet design specifications. When construction has begun, they are often involved in inspecting the work and advising contractors.
They also examine existing buildings and structures to test if they are structurally sound and still fit for purpose. Structural engineers have to make efficient use of funds and materials in order to achieve structural goals.
Tasks may vary depending on the structure being worked on and size of the team, but can include:
- analysing configurations of the basic structural components of a building or other structure;
- calculating 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;
- considering the strength of various materials, e.g. timber, concrete, steel and brick, to see how their inclusion may necessitate a change of structural design;
- liaising with other designers, including architects, to agree on safe designs and their fit with the aesthetic concept of the construction;
- examining 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;
- making drawings, specifications and computer models of structures for building contractors;
- working with geotechnical engineers to investigate ground conditions and analyse results of soil sample and in situ tests;
- liaising with construction contractors to ensure that newly erected buildings are structurally sound;
- applying expert knowledge of the forces that act on various structures;
- using computers and computer-aided design (CAD) technology for simulation purposes.
- Salaries for new graduate trainees typically range from £23,000 to £32,000.
- Salaries at senior level/for those with 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 are generally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with some occasional evening and weekend work.
What to expect
- The work is office-based with occasional visits to construction sites to visit other professionals working on a project or clients or to measure progress of a building project.
- 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).
- Jobs are available throughout the UK. However, most are concentrated in and around cities.
- 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.
- Engineering consultants can work on projects anywhere in the world, for example repair projects following large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
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 an MSc in Structural Engineering before joining the profession.
Graduate structural engineers work towards the professional qualifications of Associate-Member and Chartered Member with The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE). To become an Associate-Member (AMIStructE), you must have a degree that is accredited by IStructE. A list of accredited courses is available from the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM). Some equivalent qualifications may also be accepted. Contact IStructE for full details.
To progress on to become a Chartered Member (MIStructE) with 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.
Some graduates study for the accredited Masters degree before beginning work as a structural engineer so that they can enter the profession and begin working towards chartered status straightaway. Others enter at the lower level and study for a Masters qualification while working. Some employers may help with this and may provide study leave and help with funding.
Becoming chartered takes a substantial amount of time and involves a period of professional development followed by a review process. Once chartership has been achieved, however, it is a demonstration of a high level of professional competence and allows for the potential for higher earnings and promotion to more senior or specialised roles.
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.
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;
- teamworking ability;
- attention to detail;
- the ability to liaise well with professionals from other disciplines;
- an interest in the design and structure of buildings.
Relevant work experience and placements are useful for developing the required skills and for demonstrating a good level of competence in job applications. It can also be useful for building contacts and networking, which may lead to future job opportunities. Degree courses that offer a year in industry can also be helpful in developing contacts.
Most structural engineers work in engineering consultancies. These organisations range from large companies operating internationally, sometimes with offices in many countries, to small firms run by one person. A directory produced by The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) is available at Find an Engineer.
The large consultancy companies provide a broad range of work, high level of training and occasional opportunities for international travel.
Smaller firms tend to specialise in specific areas of engineering, and the geographical spread of their clients is less extensive.
Large construction companies often offer their clients a 'design and build' service, maintaining their own designers including structural engineers.
Smaller construction firms take on contract engineers when they need them for specific projects.
Other employers include:
- railway operators;
- aircraft manufacturers;
- oil companies:
- local authorities.
These employers have responsibility for many buildings including civic offices, schools, and buildings listed as of historic value.
University departments employ structural engineers as researchers and lecturers.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Careers in Construction
- ICErecruit - job website of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).
- The Structural Engineer Jobs - online recruitment site for The Institution of Structural Engineers.
- UK Engineering Recruitment
Find an Engineer is a searchable database of structural engineering practices and is useful for speculative applications.
Recruitment agencies specialising in engineering vacancies include:
Graduate structural engineers work towards the professional status of Associate or Chartered Member with The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE).
To do this they 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. Some structural engineers take IPD accredited by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and then the final exam of the IStructE.
Others follow the direct route of training accredited by IStructE. Many qualify with both institutions, giving them more career flexibility later.
Once professional status has been achieved with the IStructE, some engineers also become registered with the Engineering Council, taking on the designation of either Incorporated Engineer (IEng) or Chartered Engineer (CEng).
Trainee structural engineers start in design and gain experience working on many different types of structures built with a wide variety of materials. They also gain experience of a range of construction sites, with different foundation requirements and wind conditions.
With experience, they begin to liaise with architects, builders and others about their designs. Eventually, they become responsible for their own projects, liaising with clients as well as visiting and inspecting construction sites.
Professional members of IStructE must complete a certain amount of continuing professional development (CPD) each year. Both IStructE and the ICE offer relevant conferences, courses and workshops on a range of subjects, all of which can aid CPD.
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. Another option is to work as a self-employed contract engineer and be paid for each completed contract.
Some structural engineers set up their own engineering consultancies, either alone or with partners. A few are employed in architects' offices.
Another possibility is a career as a researcher or an academic at a university. This option involves investigating novel structural options with a range of construction materials or teaching the subject at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Further qualifications may be required.
Some engineers specialise in a specific type of structure, such as concrete buildings or timber-framed houses. Much of the work is concerned with the refurbishment of buildings or changing their use, e.g. from an office to a shop or a home.
There are also many opportunities to move to other parts of the UK and to work on international projects. Gaining chartered status with The Institution of Structural Engineers (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.