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What Environmental Engineers Do About this section

Environmental engineers
Environmental engineers design systems for managing and cleaning municipal water supplies.

Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They work to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control. They also address global issues, such as unsafe drinking water, climate change, and environmental sustainability.

Duties

Environmental engineers typically do the following:

  • Prepare, review, and update environmental investigation reports
  • Design projects that lead to environmental protection, such as water reclamation facilities or air pollution control systems
  • Obtain, update, and maintain plans, permits, and standard operating procedures
  • Provide technical support for environmental remediation projects and for legal actions
  • Analyze scientific data and do quality-control checks
  • Monitor the progress of environmental improvement programs
  • Inspect industrial and municipal facilities and programs in order to ensure compliance with environmental regulations
  • Advise corporations and government agencies about procedures for cleaning up contaminated sites

Environmental engineers conduct hazardous-waste management studies in which they evaluate the significance of a hazard and advise on treating and containing it. They also design systems for municipal and industrial water supplies and industrial wastewater treatment, and research the environmental impact of proposed construction projects. Environmental engineers in government develop regulations to prevent mishaps.

Some environmental engineers study ways to minimize the effects of acid rain, climate change, automobile emissions, and ozone depletion. They also collaborate with environmental scientists, urban and regional planners, hazardous-waste technicians, and other engineers, as well as with specialists such as experts in law and business, to address environmental problems and environmental sustainability. For more information, see the job profiles on environmental scientists and specialists, hazardous materials removal workers, lawyers, and urban and regional planners.

Work Environment About this section

Environmental engineers
Environmental engineers work with other engineers and with urban and regional planners.

Environmental engineers held about 52,300 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of environmental engineers were as follows:

Engineering services 27%
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 19
State government, excluding education and hospitals 13
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 7
Federal government, excluding postal service 6

Environmental engineers work in a variety of settings because of the nature of the tasks they do:

Work Schedules

Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work more than 40 hours per week to monitor the project’s progress, ensure that deadlines are met, and recommend corrective action when needed.

How to Become an Environmental Engineer About this section

Environmental engineers
A bachelor’s degree is needed to become an environmental engineer.

Environmental engineers typically need a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field, such as civil, chemical, or general engineering. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have practical experience. Therefore, internships or cooperative engineering programs may be valuable as well.

Education

Entry-level environmental engineering jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Programs include academic, laboratory, and field work. Some college and university programs offer cooperative education in which students gain practical experience while completing their studies. Students also may choose to participate in internships.

At some colleges and universities, a student can enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some colleges and universities or to do research and development, and some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree.

Students interested in becoming an environmental engineer should take high school courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and math, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Engineering programs are accredited by a professional association, such as ABET. A degree from an accredited program is usually necessary for a person to become a licensed professional engineer.

Important Qualities

Imagination. Environmental engineers sometimes have to design systems that will be part of larger ones. They must foresee how the proposed designs will interact with components of the larger system, including the workers, machinery, and equipment, as well as with the environment.

Interpersonal skills. Environmental engineers must work with others toward a common goal. They usually work with engineers and scientists who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.

Problem-solving skills. When designing facilities and processes, environmental engineers strive to solve several issues at once, from workers’ safety to environmental protection. They must identify and anticipate problems in order to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and mitigate environmental damage.

Reading skills. Environmental engineers often work with businesspeople, lawyers, and other professionals outside their field. They frequently are required to read and understand documents that deal with topics outside their scope of training.

Writing skills. Environmental engineers must write clearly so that others without their specific training can understand their documents, including plans, proposals, specifications, and findings, among others.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Licensure is not required for entry-level positions as an environmental engineer. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE).

Each state issues its own licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements. Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their licenses.

After licensing, environmental engineers can earn board certification from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists. This certification shows that an environmental engineer has expertise in one or more areas of specialization.

Advancement

As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects and they have greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions. Eventually, environmental engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians.

Some may even become engineering managers or move into executive positions, such as program managers. However, before assuming a managerial position, an engineer most often works under the supervision of a more experienced engineer. For more information, see the profile on architectural and engineering managers.

Pay About this section

Environmental Engineers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Engineers

$99,040

Environmental engineers

$96,820

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for environmental engineers was $96,820 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,820, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $153,200.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for environmental engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $110,240
Engineering services 95,730
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 94,970
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 82,520
State government, excluding education and hospitals 80,450

Most environmental engineers work full time. Those who manage projects often work more than 40 hours per week to monitor the project’s progress, ensure that deadlines are met, and recommend corrective action when needed.

Job Outlook About this section

Environmental Engineers

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Total, all occupations

8%

Engineers

7%

Environmental engineers

4%

 

Employment of environmental engineers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations.

Despite limited employment growth, about 4,000 openings for environmental engineers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

State and local governments’ concerns about water are leading to efforts to increase the efficiency of water use. Such a focus differs from that of wastewater treatment, for which this occupation is traditionally known. Most of the projected employment growth for environmental engineers is in professional, scientific, and technical services, as governments at the state and local levels draw on the industry to help address water efficiency concerns.

The federal government’s requirements to clean up contaminated sites are expected to help sustain demand for these engineers’ services. In addition, wastewater treatment is becoming a larger concern in areas of the country where drilling for shale gas requires the use and disposal of massive volumes of water.

Environmental engineers should continue to be needed to help utility companies and water treatment plants comply with federal or state environmental regulations, such as regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Employment projections data for environmental engineers, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Environmental engineers

17-2081 52,300 54,300 4 1,900 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about environmental engineers, visit

American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

For more information about education for engineers, visit

American Society for Engineering Education

For more information about accredited engineering programs, visit

ABET

For more information about becoming licensed as a professional engineer, visit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

National Society of Professional Engineers

For more information about engineering summer camps, visit

Engineering Education Service Center

CareerOneStop

For a career video on environmental engineers, visit

Environmental Engineers

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Environmental Engineers

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