Transportation Project Engineer Careers: Job Description & Salary

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A transportation engineer's average salary is around $87,000, but is it worth the education requirements and potential debt you could acquire? Get the truth about the job description and career outlook to see if this career is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Transportation Engineer Career

Transportation engineering is a specialized division of civil engineering. It is a growing career field that could give you the opportunity to design different types of transportation structures, such as bridges or airports. Keep reading to find out the pros and cons of transportation engineering and see if this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Transportation Engineering Career
High job growth expected (20% increase between 2012 and 2022)*
High income potential (civil engineers earned a mean salary of more than $87,000 in 2014)*
Many specialty areas to choose from (such as logistics and railway design)*
Most positions only require a bachelor's degree*

Cons of a Transportation Engineering Career
You may have difficulty finding work in some geographic locations*
Deadlines might require night and weekend work*
Limited number of schools offering certain specialties*
Licensing is required if you want to work for the public*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Info

Specialization Areas and Job Description

Transportation engineering is a sub-discipline of civil engineering, but you can find many specialized areas of study within transportation engineering. As a transportation engineer, some of the specialties you might study include railway design, traffic safety, logistics, airport design or transportation planning.

Some transportation engineers work at the construction site and work to solve any problems that arise, while others may work strictly in an office building. Due to the size of many transportation projects, you should be prepared to work with people who work in professions other than engineering, such as contractors, CAD technicians or clients. Transportation engineers often use computer aided design software, including AutoCAD, GEOPAK and Trafficware. Some of your job duties might include project cost estimation, project scheduling and research-based material selection.

Salary and Job Outlook

The BLS reported that civil engineers were expected to see a 20% increase in jobs during the 2012-2022 decade, which is faster than the average growth for all occupations during this period ( You may have better job security if you're working on a long-term transportation project, since many of these projects continue through economic recessions. Alternately, if you're not already working on a project, it could be difficult to find work during slow economic periods.

You usually have good earning potential as a transportation engineer. The BLS found that the middle-half salary range for civil engineers was between $65,000 and $104,000 in 2014, while the top ten percent of civil engineers earned $128,000 or more. Some of the highest paying industries that employed civil engineers include oil and gas extraction, natural gas transportation and industrial machinery maintenance.

What Are the Requirements?

The BLS reported that you need a bachelor's degree from an ABET-accredited school for most entry-level engineering jobs. You might find some jobs with a civil engineering degree, but the BLS reported that engineers who specialize in a particular area of engineering generally had the best job prospects. If you plan on working for the public, you'll need to become licensed. Licensing requirements may vary slightly between states, but you usually need to complete an ABET-approved bachelor's program, obtain four years of relevant work experience and pass two exams administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Some research and development positions may require you to obtain a graduate degree in your respective specialty, but this is rarely required for most entry-level positions.

Skills Employers Are Looking for

Although you need to be skilled in making calculations and using computers, some other important skills employers are looking for include:

  • Ability to express intricate concepts
  • Attention to detail
  • Creative thinking
  • Strong writing ability
  • Ability to build affiliations with other companies and agencies

You can obtain most of the skills you need to become a transportation engineer from a civil engineering bachelor's degree program at a college or a university. Employers expect you to be able to understand and apply engineering formulas to any project you might work on. Most programs include at least one course on written and oral communications, in addition to all of the engineering and math courses in a typical civil engineering program. You can usually take additional communication electives if you do not feel comfortable communicating with other people.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers looked for different qualities from applicants depending on the project, but nearly every employer was looking for an engineer who had strong communication skills. Here are some real examples of job postings for transportation engineers in March 2012:

  • A government agency in Washington was looking for a licensed engineer with experience in traffic operations, simulation models and project management. The ideal candidate would be able to use oral and written communication skills to explain ideas to a wide variety of audiences.
  • A Virginia governmental agency advertised for an engineering professional to oversee the scheduling, funding and estimating of a long-term program. Minimum qualifications include: knowledge of road safety principles, skills in written and verbal communication and the ability to work with and train diverse groups of individuals. The preferred candidate would have a B.S. in Civil Engineering and the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation.
  • A company in Illinois that provides engineering services to public and private clients was looking for a project engineer with a B.S. in Civil Engineering from an ABET-accredited college. Some of the tasks included using Computer-aided design (CAD) software, field observation and communicating with the design team and client staff.

How Can I Stand Out?

The BLS stated that keeping up with technological advancements which pertain to your particular area of transportation engineering can increase your value to potential employers. Staying up-to-date does not mean you have to pursue a master's degree; you could learn what you need to stay ahead through engineering seminars, classroom training or college courses. Some universities offer postgraduate certificate programs that give you training in a specific area of engineering, such as project management or polymer engineering. These types of certificate programs generally consist of about three or four courses and can be completed while you work. The Institute of Transportation Engineers offers flexible online training opportunities designed to help you learn about new technologies without the need to leave your job for an extended amount of time.

The BLS mentioned that certification could be useful for advancement, while some employers were even searching for applicants who had a professional certification. You have a variety of certification options depending on your specialty, including the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation and the Professional Traffic Operations Engineer (PTOE) designation. In order to become a PMP, you need to have a bachelor's degree with 35 hours of project management courses and at least three years of project management experience. If you do not have a bachelor's degree, you could still become a PMP with at least five years of experience and a high school diploma. The Project Management Institute administers the PMP. The PTOE certification is offered by the Transportation Professional Certification Board Inc. and requires you to have four years of relevant work experience and to pass the PTOE exam.

Learn About Your Specialty

Even though transportation engineering is a part of civil engineering, you still have many areas you could specialize in. Employers may look for applicants who are well-studied in a particular specialization. For example, if you're an airport transportation engineer, employers may prefer applicants who know Federal Aviation Administration regulations. A company looking for a transportation traffic engineer may give preference to someone who knows how to use specific traffic software systems. The more you know about your specific area of transportation engineering, the better chance you'll have (or you can obtain) the skills and knowledge that put you above your competition.

Other Career Options

Engineering Technician

If you're unsure of spending four years in school but you want to use the principles of math and science in your work, you might be interested in becoming an engineering technician. These technicians typically focus on a specific task, such as recording data, estimating costs or surveying a location. Most engineering technician positions only require an associate's degree or training from a technical institute. The BLS projected that civil engineering technicians would see a 12% increase in jobs from 2010-2020. Civil engineering technicians made a median salary of about almost $47,000 in 2011, according to the BLS.

Urban and Regional Planner

Perhaps you want to work with infrastructure development, but you're not intrigued by designing structures. If so, you might want to check out careers in urban and regional planning. Urban and regional planners figure out how to best use pieces of land and figure out which projects should be carried out. You would usually work a standard 40-hour week. Most planning positions require you to have a master's degree. You can expect to interact with all kinds of people, so you should have a strong speaking ability and be able to work with others. Although uncommon, a couple states may require you to become licensed or registered before you can become a planner. The BLS reported that urban and regional planners earned a median income of approximately $64,000 in 2011. The BLS projected a 16% increase in job opportunities from 2010-2020.

Petroleum Engineer

If you're not excited about transportation engineering, you can still find other lucrative engineering career options, such as petroleum engineering. Petroleum engineers develop extraction methods and monitor drilling operations. Education requirements for petroleum engineering are fairly similar to those of transportation engineers, but you'd probably need to choose a different specialty area from an ABET-approved school. The BLS predicted that petroleum engineers would see job growth of 17% during the 2010-2020 decade. Petroleum engineers usually have high earning potential; the BLS found that petroleum engineers earned a median yearly income of about $122,000 in 2011.

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