Water engineer is a generic title given to engineers who specialise in water-based projects; many have a civil engineering or environmental background. They may work with a variety of different liquids but generally deal with the provision of clean water, disposal of waste water and sewage and prevention of flood damage.

Asset management plays a major part in a water engineer's job. This involves repairing, maintaining and building structures that control water resources, e.g. sea defence walls, pumping stations and reservoirs.

Engineers have to constantly address new challenges and problems, which are caused by global warming, ageing infrastructure, population growth and higher quality living standards.

Responsibilities

A water engineer can expect to undertake a range of activities, including both technical and non-technical tasks. The exact mix depends on the location (office or site-based) and seniority of the post and the employment sector.

There are, for example, differences between working in water supply or treatment and working in flood prevention, although many general engineering functions apply across the board.

Responsibilities often involve:

  • designing overall schemes, such as sewer improvement schemes or flood defence programmes, and associated structures, such as pumping stations, pipework and earthworks (the scale of the design may range from an initial outline to a full, detailed design);
  • preparing tender documents as a basis for construction;
  • reviewing technical submissions;
  • liaising with various bodies and individuals, including local authorities, government agencies, clients, contractors, residents, suppliers, technical experts and other consultants;
  • working collaboratively with other businesses;
  • supporting other project managers and directors within the business and across the wider market;
  • keeping up to date with environmental matters, and being aware of policy and developments in this area;
  • presenting technical data or project results to both technical and non-technical clients and colleagues;
  • monitoring the progress of projects from beginning to end - from the feasibility stage, to design through to construction and handover - or supervising one section of a large project;
  • controlling budgets at project level;
  • administering contracts and ensuring that work is completed to deadline;
  • supervising the operation and maintenance of water and sewerage infrastructure;
  • using computer simulations to analyse, for example, potential dam failure;
  • devising flood defence strategies, perhaps including river and flood plain modelling, economic studies and consultation with affected people;
  • monitoring flood levels at times of high risk;
  • managing staff, including other engineers, technicians and site workers;
  • maintaining and expanding the portfolio of clients, by developing professional relationships that lead to secure repeat business.

Salary

  • Range of typical starting salaries falls between £20,000 and £30,000.
  • Average salaries for experienced engineers with experience can reach £24,000 to £32,000, rising to £30,000 to £45,000 for senior engineer positions.
  • Posts with a high level of management responsibility attract salaries above this level and can be in excess of £60,000, depending on qualifications and experience.

Bonuses are paid by some companies and additional benefits may form part of the remuneration package.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Unsocial working hours may be a feature of some jobs, especially when meeting deadlines. Site work, in particular, may involve long hours as well as travel. Staff with operational responsibilities or flood-monitoring duties may be on a call-out rota for out-of-hours emergencies.

The job can be pressurised at times and may involve shift work, which may impact on your personal life.

What to expect

  • Chartered status is often expected at senior level, so a willingness to work towards chartered status is an advantage.
  • There is a mixture of office and site-based duties and the latter may be dirty, wet and cold (protective clothing is normally provided).
  • Self-employment/freelance work is possible in consultancy, for engineers with substantial and wide experience.
  • Women are still generally under-represented in engineering as a whole. Support for women entering the engineering sector is provided by organisations such as the Women's Engineering Society (WES).
  • Jobs are located across the UK. Geographical mobility is an important factor with some employers.
  • The dress code depends on whether the job is office based or on-site.
  • Travel within the working day to visit sites is common.
  • Absence from home at night is occasional, mainly associated with training courses or emergency call-outs.
  • The extent of overseas travel depends on the type of employer; assignments ranging from a few weeks to a couple of years are possible in the private sector.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates from relevant engineering and sciences courses, a degree in civil engineering may improve your chances. Other degrees that may be useful include:

  • environmental engineering;
  • chemical/process engineering;
  • biochemistry;
  • environmental science (physical);
  • geography (physical);
  • geology;
  • geophysics/geotechnology;
  • mechanical engineering.

Most water engineers have a civil engineering background. This may be preferred for some roles, but it is possible to become a chartered engineer (CEng) by following up a degree in environmental or physical sciences with an approved MSc in engineering. This route may be attractive to employers with a particular focus on environmental management and protection, like those that work with natural water systems.

Engineering degrees must be accredited by the appropriate engineering body, for example the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) to progress to CEng. For a list of accredited qualifications see the Engineering Council.

It is also possible to become a chartered scientist (CSci) or chartered environmentalist (CEnv). Details for these registrations are available from the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).

A HND or foundation degree in an engineering or science subject can lead to employment at technician level. With evidence of further learning and experience, it is possible to upgrade to the incorporated engineer (IEng) qualification. The water industry offers plenty of scope to work at this level.

Some employers may prefer the MEng degree. For undergraduate students, an MSc in a specialised area, such as water engineering, hydrology or hydrogeology, may be advantageous. A Masters also counts towards the requirements for CEng registration. Sponsorship for a part-time MSc course may be offered by some employers.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • engineering knowledge;
  • experience of project management;
  • communication and negotiation skills;
  • teamwork and people management skills;
  • problem-solving ability;
  • IT knowledge;
  • self-motivation and a proactive approach to work;
  • commercial awareness;
  • an entrepreneurial spirit;
  • good time management skills;
  • a flexible approach to work and a willingness to take on new challenges.

A full driving licence is generally required.

Work experience

Relevant vacation work or an industry-placement year can improve your chances, along with a demonstrable interest in water engineering, environmental issues or public health evidenced through academic projects or water-related modules undertaken as part of your degree/postgraduate study.

Student membership of professional bodies such as ICE or CIWEM is useful for developing knowledge, keeping up to date with the latest news and industry developments, as well as for networking and building a contact base.

Employers

The water industry in England and Wales comprises 14 water and sewerage service providers and 12 water providers. Larger companies have diversified into overseas work in addition to their statutory duties on the domestic front.

The companies in England and Wales are privately owned. Welsh Water, however, is a not-for-profit company. The position in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different, as each has a single water and sewage service provider, (Scottish Water and Northern Ireland Water), that are in public ownership but rely upon private companies for delivery of many of their services.

A complete list of UK water companies can be found on Water UK.

Consultancies offer the opportunity to work with a variety of clients, develop expert knowledge and specialise in hydrology-related projects.

Large construction firms incorporating water engineering departments and working with other departments, such as highways or construction, provide the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge in different engineering disciplines.

The main government agencies that employ water engineers are the:

Local authorities have some opportunities for water engineers, although generally on smaller local watercourses and coastal and river defences.

Some consultancies and university departments offer opportunities to pursue research.

Overseas posts sometimes arise with agencies and development charities such as:

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are advertised by specialist engineering recruitment agencies, such as Thomas Telford Recruitment.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Most employers expect and encourage graduates to work towards achieving professional engineer status, generally gained by completing a period of training and acquiring relevant experience.

You may work towards registration as a chartered engineer (CEng) or incorporated engineer (IEng), depending on your academic qualifications. These are internationally recognised engineering qualifications which are awarded by the Engineering Council.

To become chartered you typically need to have:

  • an accredited Bachelors degree with honours in engineering or technology, plus either an accredited Masters or appropriate further learning to Masters level; or
  • an accredited integrated MEng degree that is accredited by a relevant professional body.

You must acquire competence in a range of skills beyond the purely technical, take increasing responsibility for your work and demonstrate professional commitment. The required professional competences for reaching chartered status are set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC), which also includes examples of how to reach the requirements.

There is no single training path for this career. In large companies where structured-graduate training schemes are provided, it may be easier to obtain the necessary breadth of experience under the supervision of a senior engineer. Equally valid experience may be gained with smaller employers, but it may be necessary to devise your own development plan to achieve this.

Training is likely to include specific courses for IT/skills training, site and design work, project management and other business-related subjects. This may involve in-house and external courses, events laid on by professional bodies and self-directed learning. All engineers are expected to undertake regular continuing professional development (CPD), which may involve reading, giving presentations, research and attending courses.

Career prospects

You may need to take on considerable responsibilities quickly, such as managing a project, controlling large-cost budgets or supervising a team of new graduates.

There is plenty of scope to progress to management positions, particularly if you are prepared to study for further business-related qualifications. It is also possible to reach higher salary grades through the development of further technical expertise, where management responsibilities may not be required.

Movement between employers and between the private and public sectors is relatively easy once sufficient experience has been gained, particularly after you have obtained CEng registration. You can also work as a consultant or as a contractor.

A willingness to move around the UK and work abroad increases your career prospects, as private firms in particular are often looking to deploy staff on overseas projects for periods ranging from weeks to years.

Other opportunities to work overseas might include work on community-based water or sanitation projects with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the developing world; one such charity which grew out of, and is strongly supported by, the UK water industry is WaterAid.

Placements for water and irrigation engineers with some experience can be found via the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Humanitarian work is not commonly open to newly qualified graduates, although undergraduates and postgraduates can join the student organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which offers voluntary work, placements and training at a relevant professional level.

You may choose to develop expertise in specialist areas such as:

  • hydraulics;
  • geotechnics;
  • coastal engineering; or
  • dams.

A sound understanding of dam construction, for example, may lead to an appointment as a panel engineer with responsibility for carrying out dam safety inspections in the UK.

Opportunities for research or project work may arise within the area of sustainable development.