The Public Perception Of Civil Engineering

April 30, 2009 at 2:18 pm 6 comments

By Carol Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC &
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of

During my college years (long ago 🙂 ) I can’t say that I ever thought of the science of civil engineering as “sexy.” As far as I knew, civil engineers built cement canoes for competition.  While interesting, not “sexy.” I was obviously not well informed! 

Fast forward 20 some years and I know MUCH more. The daily job of civil engineers hasn’t changed that much in two decades – specifically, in the sense of planning, designing, managing jobs, working with agencies, citizens and clients. What has changed is the manner and tools used to accomplish those daily responsibilites.

Technology and better textile/materials has catapulted our industry into a new realm.  Environmental concerns with the multitude of regulations make the nuances of the job even more complex. Technology and sustainability will transform the civil engineering profession for years to come.

Robert Mote asked a question on the CivilEngineeringCentral LINKEDIN Group.  He asked for folks to name the most famous civil engineer in the US.  Not unlike my understanding of civil engineering 20 years ago, I think most people may not be entirely clear on that subject.  While, as a non civil engineer, I am not ready to give my answer to Robert’s question, I certainly DO know what a civil engineer does.  Over the past 10 years the US has seen it’s share of infrastructure failings, crumblings, etc.  I have witnessed countless numbers of civil engineers being called to speak to the press to explain in “plain talk” what happened in these tragedies and how to repair them.  So, hopefully, if Robert asks his question in another 10 years, folks will be able to rattle off not only a famous US civil engineer, but they will actually understand what a civil engineer does!

The Institute of Civil Engineers put together an EXCELLENT video about “The Public Perception Of Civil Engineering“…..Take a look:

civil engineering  jobs :: civil engineering resumes :: civil engineering blog :: civil engineering discussion 


Entry filed under: Civil Engineering Issues, Failing US Infrastructure, The U.S. Economy & Civil Engineering, US Infrastructure.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. SM Systems  |  March 8, 2010 at 10:38 am

    What we are generally seeing across the world is a worsening issue of public infrastructure crumbling, or in slow decay, primarily because of lack of maintenance due to lack of funding. There is an ever increasing need of change and reconstruction and the civil engineer will be right at the forefront of this looming battle. This 800 pound gorilla in the corner can not be ignored for much longer.

  • 2. David Perrings, PE  |  May 8, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    this question of recognition has been brought up before. In one article by by Richard G. Weingardt, PE titled “The Great Bridge debuted 125 years ago” link is below

    he asks the question “How are the great engineering project of today being recognized ?”

    The following is my response to his article.


    Regarding your question about the public recognition of outstanding structural engineering achievements today, it is an interesting question and I would be interested to read creative responses that you get back.

    I suppose the first question to ask regarding the “Great Bridge” is what factors contribute to its fame and what percentage is attributed to a structural engineering feet. My guess regarding structural engineering is very little.

    I think other factors weigh in more such as when it was built, the setting, the bridges impact on the local economy and the appearance of the bridge. I think that in order for something to acheive the status of the “Great Bridge” a lot more is in play then simply structural engineering. Your question reminds me of one of my favorite poems on the subject which I have included here and highlighted the part regarding bridges. I think the poem makes a powerfull point. Is this really a situation that needs to be corrected ? What value would it serve ?

    In the poem Monet speaks of no longer being able to see the wisteria separate from the bridge that it covers.

    Monet Refuses The Operation by Lisel Mueller

    Doctor, you say there are no haloes
    around the streetlights in Paris
    and what I see is an aberration
    caused by old age, an affliction.
    I tell you it has taken me all my life
    to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
    to soften and blur and finally banish
    the edges you regret I don’t see,
    to learn that the line I called the horizon
    does not exist and sky and water,
    so long apart, are the same state of being.
    Fifty-four years before I could see
    Rouen cathedral is built
    of parallel shafts of sun,
    and now you want to restore
    my youthful errors: fixed
    notions of top and bottom,
    the illusion of three-dimensional space,
    wisteria separate
    from the bridge it covers.
    What can I say to convince you
    the Houses of Parliament dissolves
    night after night to become
    the fluid dream of the Thames?
    I will not return to a universe
    of objects that don’t know each other,
    as if islands were not the lost children
    of one great continent. The world
    is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
    becomes water, lilies on water,
    above and below water,
    becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
    and white and cerulean lamps,
    small fists passing sunlight
    so quickly to one another
    that it would take long, streaming hair
    inside my brush to catch it.
    To paint the speed of light!
    Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
    burn to mix with air
    and change our bones, skin, clothes
    to gases. Doctor,
    if only you could see
    how heaven pulls earth into its arms
    and how infinitely the heart expands
    to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

    David Lewis Perrings, PE
    Civil Engineer
    P/A Design Resources, Inc.
    2700 Ygnacio Valley Road, Suite 100
    Walnut Creek, California 94598
    Ph 925-210-9300
    Fax 925-210-9303

  • 3. David Perrings, PE  |  May 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    TO know what a civil engineer does all you have to do is look around you were ever you go, unless you are in some remote undiscovered part of the world the civil engineers work is everywhere.

    I think the great thing about Civil Engineering is that “being famous” has little to do with it. People leave us alone and we get to do challenging work and work on great projects. Civil Engineering to my knowelge is not based on “the star system”. With all that civil engineers do and all the types of projects they do if you start trying to name a famous civil engineer your stuck with either a bridge engineer, dam engineer or one of two canals. You also need to go back many years to find these people and even after you have done that the person is only famous because the structure is famous. The Golden Gate Bridge, THe Brookland Bridge, Hoover Dam, Panama Canal. Personally I think Civil Engineers will always be unsung heros and I see that as a good thing. If a person has a need to be famous they need to head off to Hollywood, their chances are at least better then trying to be a famous engineer.

    As for Civil Engineering being SEXY, I suppose we could sponser a concrete bikini contest.

  • 4. LAND Engineering, plc  |  May 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Excellent points, and hats off to CEC for continuing in the uphill battle to promote our profession!

    I agree that at times the lack of public appreciation can be frustrating; but I suppose we bear it with the sense of internal satisfaction that most CEs would agree comes with the job. While this may seem to be waving a white flag, I just don’t see perceptions changing. Civil engineering is one of the oldest professions of humanity. Outreach initiatives by the ICE or ASCE can only do limited good in terms of “educating,” because as is frequently noted – there’s nothing interesting to the public about public works and infrastructure.

    Perhaps initiatives could be discussed with the intent of raising the overall wages within the profession, but I think it’s somewhat pointless, petty, and self-defeating to strive for the public adulation common to lawyers, doctors, and even architects.

  • 5. Joe Buongiorno  |  May 1, 2009 at 1:16 am

    Carol you missed the point. The group was asked to name the most famous civil engineer. They were asked to name the civil engineer that would be a household name. In other words who would the general public associate with civil engineering? I am sure that many non medical people can name a famous doctor. Or the non legal folks can name a famous lawyer. But unless one is associated with civil engineering, I doubt anyone can name a famous civil engineer. The group did a great job in naming famous civil engineers and there are probably dozens more one can name. When I am asked what I do for a living, the question that I almost always get to my answer is “what is that you do.” I do not think doctors and lawyers have to explain what they do. Oh sure they may have to explain there specialty within their profession. But even then, people understand the difference between corporate law and criminal law. Why is that? Well for one thing we do not do a good job of promoting ourselves. Why? If we were held at the same level of importance as doctors and lawyers, we would command a much higher level of compensation. Could you image the havoc that would happen if we started charging $300/ hour for out time? Another reason we get no attention is that every day the general public interfaces with the fruits of our labor. They do not think about the training and experience that one has to have to design that very long structure they drive over everyday on their way to work. They will, however pay the $300 per hour for an attorney to get the speeding ticket reduced or dismissed for speeding over the structure. Or they want the best doctor on the planet to may them whole after they crashed their car while speeding. They do not interface doctors and lawyers on a daily bases like they do with civil engineers. They turn on the tap and expect water to come out. They do not now or care what happens to their sanitary waste. They have no idea or could care less the amount of effort that was required to design the deep sea oil drilling platform that brings up the oil to heat their house, power their cares and is used to make all the medications they take. Here in NJ there is a magazine called NJ monthly. They always have a section on NJ top doctors or top lawyers. I never have seen one on NJ top engineers. If we want to be known, than we better start doing it ourselves because nobody is going to do it for us.

    • 6. aepcentral  |  May 1, 2009 at 1:50 am

      Hi Joe…Thanks for your comment. I don’t really think I missed the point as I ABSOLUTELY agree with YOU! If you watched the video you will see what a GREAT job ICE did promoting civil engineering; showing how necessary civil engineers are to our daily lives and the future of our lives. Through Civil Engineering Central, our BLOGs, our newsletters, we work to educate the non-engineering community. Keep reading!


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