A career as a water engineer may appeal to you if you relish the challenge of solving problems in global warming, ageing infrastructure, population growth and quality living standards

Water engineer is a generic title given to engineers who specialise in water-based projects; many have a civil engineering or environmental background.

You 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.

Responsibilities

As a water engineer, you'll need to:

  • design 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)
  • prepare tender documents as a basis for construction
  • review technical submissions
  • liaise with various bodies and individuals, including local authorities, government agencies, clients, contractors, residents, suppliers, technical experts and other consultants
  • work collaboratively with other businesses
  • support other project managers and directors within the business and across the wider market
  • keep up to date with environmental matters, and be aware of policy and developments in this area
  • present technical data or project results to both technical and non-technical clients and colleagues
  • monitor the progress of projects from beginning to end - from the feasibility stage, to design through to construction and handover - or supervise one section of a large project
  • control budgets at project level
  • administer contracts and ensure that work is completed to deadline
  • supervise the operation and maintenance of water and sewerage infrastructure
  • use computer simulations to analyse, for example, potential dam failure
  • devise flood defence strategies, perhaps including river and flood plain modelling, economic studies and consultation with affected people
  • monitor flood levels at times of high risk
  • manage staff, including other engineers, technicians and site workers
  • maintain and expand the portfolio of clients, by developing professional relationships that lead to secure repeat business.

Salary

  • Starting salaries range from £20,000 to £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 this level 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 and freelance work is possible in consultancy, for engineers with substantial experience.
  • Women are still under-represented in engineering. Support for women entering the engineering sector is provided by organisations such as the Women's Engineering Society (WES).
  • Travel within the working day to visit sites is common.

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:

  • biochemistry
  • chemical/process engineering
  • environmental engineering
  • 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 the 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).

An 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:

  • 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 as you will have to drive to different sites.

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 or 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 main employers of water engineers are the water and sewerage service providers throughout the UK. Details of these can be found on the Water UK website.

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.

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:

The charity Canal & River Trust advertises some vacancies, as does the CIWEM. You could also check the websites of local authorities. 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:

Professional development

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'll need to complete an accredited Bachelors degree or MEng degree and acquire the necessary degree of competence in a range of skills. 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.

It is relatively easy to move between the private and public sector once you have gained sufficient experience and 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.

You may choose to develop expertise in specialist areas such as hydraulics, geotechnics, coastal engineering or dams. Opportunities for research or project work may arise within the area of sustainable development.