What is structural engineering? (With salary and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 3 October 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The field of engineering is diverse, with many jobs available in different areas of specialisation. Structural engineers design the mechanics behind large-scale projects, from buildings to bridges. Learning more about the role of a structural engineer can help you determine if the career path suits your career goals and interests. In this article, we learn the answer to 'what is structural engineering?', review the qualifications you need for a structural engineering role, discover the average salaries and locations of work for these professionals, identify other roles of a structural engineer and discuss the daily tasks and soft skills you require to work in the field.

What is structural engineering?

Understanding the answer to 'what is structural engineering?' can help you determine if the role suits you. Structural engineering is work that combines a theoretical understanding of materials and practical experience in building a structure. This work considers natural forces like the wind, rain and flooding when completing a project, and the requirements of the surrounding area. In this role, you may work with many people in a team, including contractors and architects, to complete the project.

Qualifications needed to become a structural engineer

To be a structural engineer, you usually require a degree. You may need an undergraduate degree in engineering or a related undergraduate degree with a master's degree in engineering. Some employers may accept equivalent qualifications or degrees in other subjects as long as you have experience in the structural engineering field.

Related: How to become a structural engineer

Salary of a structural engineer

The average national salary of a structural engineer is £38,094 per year. As with most jobs, working in larger cities is typically more lucrative. Here are the average salaries for structural engineers in different areas of the UK:

  • Bristol: £37,157 per year

  • London: £40,733 per year

  • Birmingham: £43,131 per year

Related: The average engineering salary in the UK

Where do structural engineers work?

Structural engineers work in many different locations. Here are some examples of locations where a structural engineer may work:

Buildings

One of the primary areas of work for structural engineers is designing building projects. In building work, structural engineers analyse the strength and durability of the materials comprising a building. They can work to help design new buildings or work on renovations and extensions for existing buildings.

Bridges

As a structural engineer, you may work with bridges. You can design new bridges, assessing the weather conditions and risk of flooding to determine which materials are safest for the intended purpose, whether for pedestrians, vehicles or trains. These professionals also work to improve existing bridges, including assessing the safety of the bridge after damage to the structure through use or weather conditions. They then recommend materials or work to improve the structure.

Pipelines

Some structural engineering work focuses on the transport of products, either to or from a consumer. You may design pipelines for oil and gas companies or even sewage systems. In this role, you may work to design efficient and safe pipe networks, sometimes spanning hundreds of kilometres .

Aerospace

An aerospace structural engineer designs anything from space ships to planes and missiles. This involves the testing process used to determine the safest and most efficient materials to use. Because of the complexity of the work and the required qualifications and skills, aerospace structural engineers typically receive higher pay than other types of structural engineers. This also depends on the organisation for which they work.

Nautical

Structural engineers who specialise in maritime engineering design different types of ships. This includes anything from sailboats to aircraft carriers. Your job is to understand the mechanics behind keeping boats afloat and apply this to the specific requirements of the project.

Other roles for structural engineers

As a structural engineer, you may design structures based on varying specifications of a project. Earthquake engineering requires creating a building or structure which stays upright and cannot injure people in the instance of an earthquake. Many skyscrapers have some degree of earthquake proofing, whether this is designing the building with flexible materials that move with the earthquake or having a seismic counterweight that helps to reduce the movement in the building.

Another role in structural engineering is wind engineering. The wind affects many skyscrapers as they are so tall. Designing a skyscraper to resist the wind improves the longevity of the building. Fire engineering also exists in many buildings. This involves designing a building to have low flammability and many escape options in the event of a fire, reducing the risk of death due to a fire.

Daily tasks of a structural engineer

A structural engineer has many daily tasks throughout each project, which can be varied and diverse. Here's a list of tasks common to most structural engineer roles:

Design the construction

Structural engineers design the structure for contractors and builders to create. These designs have a preliminary concept stage which is discussed with the architect, client and contractor before making more detailed designs. These detailed designs use 2D and 3D modelling to demonstrate ideas.

Structural planning on existing buildings or structures

While some of the work of a structural engineer involves designing new constructions, it's more likely that their primary tasks are to plan renovations to existing structures. For work on buildings, this often involves renovations like extensions, while in bridges, this might involve repairs. You can recommend new materials or methods of working to improve the efficiency or longevity of the structure in your role.

Work with builders and architects

Your work may include assisting other members of the team who also work on the project. This may be contractors, builders and architects. They may have specific structural engineering questions to ask you in relation to the project, which you can answer as the resident expert on the subject.

Supervise the construction

As a structural engineer, you may visit the construction site of the project. This is to ensure that the builders maintain the standards that you set in your design and build the structure appropriately. Supervision like this can prevent queries about safety issues after the completion of the building.

Analyse components of the process

Your work may include an analysis of the construction process. Structural engineers often analyse the structural integrity of construction during and after the building process. As a structural engineer, you may analyse the building process and determine whether it's on time or delayed. You may also analyse the site itself prior to building work, beginning with determining which materials work most efficiently with the soil type and whether to add more safety precautions because of wind speed or weather conditions.

Help prepare documents

Your work may include preparing documentation, like planning permission requests. This is because structural engineers are often the experts at the site. The planners and other departments who need the documentation may respect your opinion because of your expertise and experience in the field.

Research materials

Each project has specific requirements. For example, this may be working with unfavourable weather conditions, soil types, erosion or location issues, like limitations in space. To overcome the issues for each project, you can research materials that exist in the field already or suggest new, innovative options to help make your design as efficient as possible.

Related: Research skills: definition and examples

Soft skills for structural engineers

Structural engineers require many soft skills to complete their jobs. Here's a list of soft skills which apply to most types of structural engineering roles:

Creativity and attention to detail

The work of a structural engineer requires a great deal of creativity to overcome the challenges that may arise in a project. Being creative also helps those in this role to create designs. Attention to detail can help ensure you include all the necessary small details to improve the build overall.

Related: Best practices to boost your creative thinking skills

Analytical skills and critical thinking

Analytical and critical thinking skills help structural engineers understand the project brief. By having a strong understanding of the project you are to complete, you can produce effective work that satisfies all the requirements. These skills may also help you recognise changes you can make to a design or the project under construction.

Teamwork and communication

Your job as a structural engineer requires working with a team to produce effective designs and constructions. Having good teamwork and communication skills may help with this. You may often work collaboratively rather than as separate divisions during your role.

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