Tips & Tricks

Structural Engineers – What they do, where they work and how much money they make

Structural engineers are civil engineers that design structures. They design, check and certify structures such as buildings, bridges and tunnels.

What do Structural Engineers Do?

Structural engineers study how forces are applied to parts of buildings, how those forces are transmitted and resisted, and the effects that those forces have on the parts of structures and on the structure as a whole.

For example, a structural engineer that designs houses thinks about things like:

  • How strong the roof has to be so that the roof does not sag too much under its own weight or under the weight of a worker on the roof.
  • How strong a roof has to be so that it is not blown away by a cyclone or a tornado.
  • How strong the walls have to be to support the wall cladding and the roof structure.
  • How strong the floor has to be to support furniture, people, special items like grand pianos and floor coverings like special floor tiles.
  • How strong the foundation has to be to support the whole house, how deep the footings have to be to stop the house being moved by a tornado or a cyclone, and how strong the footings have to be so the building is not affected too much by the ground moving.

The process that a structural engineer follows when designing structures is always fairly simple: Determine the forces. Determine the load path. Design the structural elements. However, the amount of work this might entails varies wildly depending on the structure. the type of the structural parts and how they are joined.

A structural engineer that designs a high rise building has a lot more forces and a lot more load path to consider than a structural engineer that designs a small footbridge.

How Do You Become a Structural Engineer

Structural engineers study civil engineering at university. Civil engineers study basic concepts such as statics (how forces transmit through things). dynamics (how forces move things), thermodynamics (how energy changes things), chemistry (the chemical make up of things), materials (how construction materials get their characteristics), geomechanics (how soils affect things), transport (roads, traffic and things) and hydraulics (how water moves and affects things).

After university, structural engineers learn more about structures such as buildings, bridges and/or tunnels by either undertaking further study or getting their first job as a structural engineer.

Whether at university or on the job, structural engineers learn complex and simple ways of designing the structures they intend working with. Special computer programs called finite element analysis programs and 3d analysis programs (like SpaceGass) improve the speed and accuracy of complicated structures. However first principles hand calculations on note pads are still used in many offices because they are easy to check and can be used to prove overall theories.

Many localities require structural engineers to have around 4 years of experience working under the close mentorship of a senior structural engineer before they are allowed to apply for registration. In Queensland, that process is managed by BPEQ. After registration, many structural engineers tend to keep working in larger firms for the technical support and camaraderie that working with other technical specialists offers.

Where Do Structural Engineers Work?

Structural engineering is a great mix of indoor and outdoor work.

How’s this for a mix of work:

  • Start the day checking emails and responding to enquiries.
  • Head out for a site inspection with the head contractor to check compliance of a concrete slab prior to pouring.
  • Meet with an architect at a new project to discuss technical constraints and opportunities.
  • A couple of hours in the office writing notes form the site inspection, sending some emails, completing calculations to determine the size for a steel beam for the architect.
  • Receive a phone call from a commercial building owner concerned about a sagging ceiling. Make an appointment and head out to inspect the problem. Determine a course of action for repairing the damage and upgrading the deficient structural elements.
  • Answer the phone call from a builder with a question about a design you completed last year. He asks you to consider an approach that allows the builder to keep working while waiting for a missing beam. You come up with a solution that the builder likes and send him a confirmation email that he can show to his certifier.
  • You receive two photos by text message from a real estate agent that is enquiring about some damage in a rental property. You contact the agent, talk about the damage, the access requirements for the property and make a time for an inspection next week.

The life of a structural engineer is constantly challenging. It takes a lot of training, a lot of study, a great personality and a heap of humility to make a good engineer.

It’s fine to be a little bit nerdy sometimes, but good engineers need to be able to mix and communicate with a wide variety of people. The old days of back-office structural engineers are long gone.

So where do structural engineers work? Everywhere there is a building, bridge or tunnel. Everywhere there is a phone signal, email connection or notepad. Everywhere there is a problem, a new building being planned, and every now and then, in an office.

How Much Money do Structural Engineers Earn?

I would love to tell you that by being a structural engineer you are going to be rich.

But that isn’t the case.

As a structural engineer with a good work ethic, the ability to lead a team, knowledge of the local industry, contacts in the local industry and incredible smarts that allow you to juggle about a hundred jobs a day, you are going to be comfortable. You are going to be middle class. You are going to be awarded a very average pay.

If you want to be rich, I suggest you don’t become a structural engineer. There are many ways to become rich but being a structural engineer is not one of them.

The benefit of being a good structural engineer is:

  • an average pay. Your partner will love you for who you are, not how much you make.
  • a new challenge each day. Each day is exciting and different.
  • that you get to help people who really need your help. Engineers are needed for so many challenges people face with buildings.
  • you get to see your ideas come to fruition. An idea is just an idea until you explain it to someone and they build it.
  • you get to see your plans being built. You get to walk past your finished buildings for many,, many years and know that you contributed to that building and you did a good job. You get to work with some funny, smart, clever, experienced engineers, architects, builders, labourers, homeowners and clients. You get to earn a decent living and you get to hold your head high because you are contributing to society, You are providing a useful, worthwhile service and making our society better.


By Matthew Cornell

Matt Cornell is a structural engineer with 25 years experience in residential structural engineering. He lives in Northgate on the northern side of Brisbane, Australia.