What is an Environmental Engineer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An environmental engineer is an engineer who works to solve or prevent environmental problems. These engineering professionals can work in a number of capacities and in a number of industries, ranging from nonprofit organizations focused on environmental improvement to oil refineries which want to improve their environmental practices. To work as an environmental engineer, it is usually necessary to have at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, and many engineers hold advanced degrees which can include postgraduate fellowships in particular areas of interest.

Environmental engineers can help companies avoid harming the planet with their practices.
Environmental engineers can help companies avoid harming the planet with their practices.

In addition to being knowledgeable about engineering, environmental engineers are also familiar with topics like biology, hydrology, geology, chemistry, and public health. Their goal is to develop solutions to environmental problems by applying engineering, and they deal with issues such as water supply, purification, and management, waste management, pollution, recycling, public health issues which involve the environment, environmental remediation, and environmental design. An environmental engineer may do something like developing safe wells for use in the developing world, streamlining urban recycling services, or assisting with environmental cleanup of a contaminated site.

In some cases, an environmental engineer may play a key role in designing and outfitting a facility before it is opened.
In some cases, an environmental engineer may play a key role in designing and outfitting a facility before it is opened.

An environmental engineer can conduct environmental assessments, identifying issues with the natural environment, and he or she can also develop solutions to environmental problems, participate in policymaking, design new engineering tools which can be used for the benefit of the environment, and teach other engineers about the practice of environmental engineering. These engineers work in a range of environments, from offices in urban areas where they may deal with environmental policy to experimental field sites where new environmental equipment is tested.

While improving the environment often has a direct benefit for the humans which enjoy it, environmental engineers are also concerned with other species which rely on the natural world for survival. Their work can include measures to protect habitat for endangered plants and wildlife, balancing the human and animal needs in an environmentally sensitive area, and helping people utilize natural resources more effectively so that wildlife and plants will also be able to use those resources.

Salaries for people in this field of engineering vary, depending on their education, level of experience, and area of practice. An environmental policy consultant, for example, may be able to command very high fees for services, while an environmental engineer who works for a nonprofit may make much less. Employment prospects in this field tend to be consistent, as environmental problems and needs are constantly evolving, creating new job openings for people concerned with the health of the environment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Alchemy- You do not need your PE to find an engineering job, nor do you always need a degree in engineering. A four year engineering technology job will allow you to work as an engineer, but if the program is not ABET accredited, you might not be able to become licensed. To the best of my knowledge, an engineering technology major will not be able to become a PE either, making graduate school a necessity if you need your PE.

If you can make the commitment, I would say to go for the engineering program if you want to secure a environmental engineering career with the potential for upward mobility. You may find that you will eventually apply for your PE, and possibly continue your education in pursuit of an MBA. This would prepare you to start your own engineering firm and become quite successful.


@Alchemy- In most cases, you do not need to go for your PE certification for an entry-level environmental engineer job. Your PE is only required for when you are offering your services directly to the public, and require a combination of an ABET accredited engineering degree and work experience.

When you graduate with your engineering program, you can take your fundamentals of engineering exam, which will prepare you for your PE Exam. After you work as an engineer for at least four years, you can take the principles and practices exam to transition from an Engineer in training to a professional engineer.

I would say that a majority of civil, mechanical and chemical engineers are PEs so if you were going for environmental engineering I would plan to apply for your certification. Depending on your line of work, you may consider another type of certification that demonstrate competency in a specific field of engineering. Good luck and study hard.


Do I need to gain professional engineering certification to land an environmental engineering job? If I do, do I need to go to graduate school to qualify for the Professional Engineer certification? Finally, is an engineering technology degree the same as an engineering degree, and will it qualify me for Certification as a professional engineer? I am just graduating high school and I would like to know what it takes to become an engineer.

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