Structural engineers are creative innovators who use their technical minds to design structures, solve problems and shape the world around them
As a structural engineer, you'll design structures to withstand stresses and pressures imposed through environmental conditions and human use. You'll ensure buildings and other structures do not deflect, rotate, vibrate excessively or collapse and that they remain stable and secure throughout their use. You'll 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, you'll help to design most structures, including houses, hospitals, office blocks, bridges, oil rigs, ships and aircraft.
You'll also be responsible for choosing the appropriate materials, such as concrete, steel, timber and masonry, to meet design specifications and will often be involved in inspecting the work and advising contractors.
Types of structural engineering
You may specialise in a particular area of structural engineering, such as:
As a structural engineer, you'll need to:
- analyse configurations of the basic components of a 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 advise 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.
- Your salary as a graduate structural engineering trainee will typically range from £22,000 to £28,000.
- With two to three years' experience you can earn between £25,000 and £40,000.
- Salaries at senior level, or for those with significant experience - usually at least 5-8 years' worth - range from £40,000 to £70,000. The higher end of the scale is more likely to be 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.
Your working hours will usually be 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. Structural engineers that work on a contract basis are known as contract engineers. Setting up your own consultancy is an option.
Career breaks are possible once you're 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 to see other professionals and clients, or to measure progress of a building project.
- When visiting sites, appropriate safety equipment needs to be worn.
- According to WISE, approximately 23% of graduates working in engineering roles are women. Various organisations, including WISE and Equate Scotland, aim to redress this imbalance, by encouraging more women into engineering careers.
- 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.
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 still be able to enter the profession, but the process may 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.
As a graduate structural engineer, you can 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. 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 at JB.
Entry without a degree is possible if you hold a national diploma-level qualification in structural/civil engineering or equivalent. However, you'll only be able to progress to a Technician Member (TIStructE), and 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
- 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.
Doing some relevant work experience or a work placement is a great way to develop your 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.
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 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:
- Careers in Construction
- ICErecruit - job website of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
- The Structural Engineer Jobs - online recruitment site for the IStructE.
Recruitment agencies specialising in engineering vacancies include:
As a graduate structural engineer, you'll work towards the professional status of Associate or Chartered Member with the IStructE.
To do this you must meet three requirements:
- Academic requirements - for associate membership this is an accredited degree; for chartered membership, you'll need an accredited Masters.
- Initial Professional Development (IPD) - trainees gain experience in the workplace (usually over a period of three to four years), 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.
You can opt to take IPD accredited by 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've 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).
After starting out as a construction designer, it's likely you'll progress to becoming a project manager. You may work alone, liaising closely with 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
- working as a self-employed contract engineer
- setting up your own consultancy
- teaching or research work.
There are 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.
As a chartered member, you can go on to become a Fellow of the IStructE, once you 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.