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The Skills And Knowledge Needed By Senior Civil Engineers

Senior civil engineers – often working in the role of an engineering manager – need to be confident project managers that possess a whole host of engineering and interpersonal skills. This article runs through some of the attributes that employers and stakeholders look for when seeking a senior civil engineer for their project. A large majority of senior civil engineers come from an engineering background – acquiring managerial skills on top of their previous acumen. 

Project Management

Senior civil engineers are expected to be good project managers. All civil engineering projects – from the largest hydroelectric dams to the smallest road upgrade programs – involve multiple stakeholders, workers, budget sectors, and timeframes. 

For this reason, civil engineers are expected to seek training in engineering management in addition to retaining their skills and knowledge as a practically minded engineer. If you have ever worked as a junior civil engineer on a project, you will know just how important good project management from the engineering manager is. When communication is poor, budgets are not realistic, stakeholders make ridiculous demands, and resources are inadequate, a project can turn into a real mess. A MEM Master of engineering management degree is necessary for engineers that want to transition into a more senior role. Postgraduate management degrees help to supplement the engineering know-how a person has with management principles that are specifically useful in the carrying out of complex projects. 

Senior engineers that are managing projects need to be able to deal with some of the trickier aspects of dealing with stakeholders. Stakeholders can be architects, government bodies, or private companies – basically, any party that has an interest in the completion of a project. Unlike junior civil engineers, senior engineers have to deal directly with these forces if they want to secure the resources and time that they need to make the most out of a project. Sound economic acumen is an important part of the engineering project management skill set. Senior civil engineers need to be able to account for and plan for the money that will be spent on a project. Far from just thinking of the physical solutions to a problem, senior civil engineers have to consider the wider implications of engineering. 

Mathematics Knowledge 

It cannot be overstated just how important sound mathematical knowledge is to civil engineering. Civil engineers make use of nearly all of the 26 branches of mathematics during the course of their work. Senior civil engineers cannot lag behind their staff when it comes to mathematical calculation. They need to be able to audit the work of the people they delegate work to so that they can ensure quality control. Some of the most important branches of mathematics needed in civil engineering are:


Algebra is used to create scalable equations using representative symbols. This can be immensely useful to civil engineers. Senior engineers need to understand algebra in order to check the mathematical soundness of calculations related to structural properties. Algebra can also be used to efficiently convey mathematical information to engineers working on a project so as to ensure complete accuracy in construction. 


Calculus, invented in part by Sir Isaac Newton, is a mathematical way of calculating an unknown rate of change based on known variables. No object is always at rest. All objects and materials are subjected to forces. All materials go through entropic journeys of some kind. Civil engineers need to be able to use calculus in order to understand how a structure might react to the various forces to which it will be exposed. Calculus can be used, for instance, to estimate the entropic impact of traffic that will cross a proposed bridge. 


Geometry is used when calculating the strongest possible angles to use when building a structure. It is used alongside trigonometry in the surveyance of both the land and the structures built into it. Engineers at all levels are expected to have a good working grasp of both geometry and trigonometry. 

Physics Knowledge

All civil engineering relies heavily on physics. Physics can be used to create mathematical models that allow for the accurate planning of structures. The essential physics knowledge used in the civil engineering field can roughly be described as being related to the principles of mechanics. There are four laws that form the principles of mechanics:

Newton’s Laws Of Motion

These three laws determine the behavior of moving objects. The first law states that every particle continues in a state of rest or continues moving in a straight line unless outside forces compel it to change. The second law quantifies the proportional way in which a force may impact the behavior of an object. The third (and most famous) law dictates that for every action, there is a proportional reaction. 

Newton’s Law Of Gravitation

This law determines the mathematical relationship between two attracted objects. When Isaac Newton first described the force of gravity, it was this law that he used to understand the implications of his discovery. 

The Principle Of Transmissibility

This law determines the law in which the action of a force may be transmitted along its line of action. 

The Stevinius Law For The Combination Of Forces

This is a parallelogram law for understanding the possible vectors and variables caused by combining forces. This is used alongside calculus to determine a structure’s relationship to the forces it may have to weather during use. Stevinius himself was a fascinating figure. As well as figuring out the law for the combination of forces, he was also the first person to truly investigate the effects of the moon on the tide during the 16th century. He also had a hand in developing modern music theory. A true polymath! 

Material Properties Knowledge 

Senior civil engineers need to have a very firm grasp of the properties of materials. They have a large part to play in the selection of materials for a project and work in conjunction with town planners and architects when determining the best choices. Although every civil engineer needs to have a good grasp of this, senior figures leading a project are expected to be able to make final choices when it comes to selecting materials. Material suitability is not just determined by properties: economics is also a major factor.

The mechanical properties of materials that need to be considered are:


Strength is the mechanical property that enables a material to withstand deformation under the influence of external loads. 


Elasticity is the degree to which a material can return to its original shape after being deformed by an external force. Rubber and sprung metal, for instance, possess a high degree of elasticity. 


The plasticity of a material is determined by its ability to undergo a permeant deformation without rupturing or suffering structural weakness.


Hardness is a property that determines a material’s resistance to cutting, scratching or abrasion. 


Toughness is the property determining whether a material can withstand shock or impact. It can be roughly thought of as a combination of strength and plasticity. 


Brittle materials withstand permanent deformation. This leads them to be prone to breaking rather than bending when subjected to outside forces. 


Stiffness is the mechanical resistance of a material to any initial deformation. An object can be still without being necessarily brittle. 


The ductility of a material determines how easily and effectively it may be drawn out into a thin wire. Copper and steel, for instance, possess high ductility. 


The degree to which a material can be hammered, rolled, or crushed into another shape is measured in terms of malleability. 


A highly cohesive material is hard to break into fragments. 

Impact Strength

The impact strength of a material determines its ability to resist the onset of a sudden external load. 


Fatigue is the effect of long-term strain. It can be measured using known variables in combination with known material properties. 


Creep can be described as the slow deformation of a material. It is usually used in order to understand the way in which materials will deform in different temperature states. 

Design Skills

Senior civil engineers do not need to be architects, but they do need to be competent designers of structures and be able to work alongside architects and planners to complete plans. Civil engineers are essentially technical experts that planners make use of in the creation of structural blueprints. Engineers need to be able to audit designs in order to identify any potential structural issues that may arise. They need to be confident enough to step in and suggest material changes during the planning of a new structure or system. In order to do this, they need to back up their work with a mathematical model. 

Computer-Aided Design Skills

A great deal of design and planning is now conducted using Computer-Aided Design software. This has been an immense leap forward in engineering capability since it was first introduced in the 1980s. Modern Computer-Aided Design software allows engineers to apply their mathematical and computational models to designs at the click of a mouse. Any engineer working without CAD is either very old school or very confident in their mathematical ability indeed. In other words, this is an aptitude that you will be expected to have.

Problem-Solving Skills

The problems encountered during the planning and execution of a project need to be solved methodically and safety. The ultimate solution to these problems tends to be the responsibility of the lead senior engineer. Senior civil engineers need to be comfortable with complex and highly stressful issues. They need to be able to foresee the kinds of problems that they and their team will likely encounter in their work. Sound disaster management protocols need to be written and in place before a project is even underway. 

There are several ways in which senior civil engineers seek to solve problems. It is generally wise to try and develop a mathematical model using known variables in order to accurately come up with a material solution. Computational models are also commonly used. Occasionally, a civil engineer may need to think creatively: looking for out-of-the-box solutions, which can then be mathematically audited before being physically tested. 

The simplest problem-solving method is reverse engineering: taking apart or reversing the process used to create a structure to understand what the problem with that structure is. This is not usually possible in physical terms. It must be completed using mathematical models. 

Interpersonal Skills

Senior civil engineers are, at the end of the day, managers. As managers, they need to be good interpersonal communicators. Any large engineering project will involve the successful collaborative efforts of a large web of people. Any large web of collaborators is likely to encounter some kind of conflict – especially when complex problems need to be solved during the course of a project. Senior civil engineers need to be the voice of scientific reason and the understanding mediator during these conflicts. Conflicts can arise from budget mishandling, ambitious briefings, labor misuse, and a whole host of other sources. During a Master’s of Engineering Management course, students learn how to incorporate interpersonal management skills into their work. 

Knowledge Of Building And Construction

It should go without saying that senior civil engineers should have a good working knowledge of building and construction. The techniques, trends, workflow, and material elements of construction should all be well known by a project lead. Research is the key to this knowledge. A senior civil engineer is expected to spend time contextualizing the brief they have received, digging through the historical and contemporary projects that share elements with the one they are taking charge of. A good knowledge of building and construction also enables a senior civil engineer to work more closely with the people actually carrying out the plan they have conceived. This is vital. If a senior figure cannot understand what the people working with them are doing, then they are going to have a hard time understanding any problems that arise and an even harder time setting realistic construction goals.