What Is a Geotechnical Engineer?

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Geotechnical Engineers examine, explain, and work with the lay of the land and it's topographical properties.

What Does a Geotechnical Engineer Do?

A Geotechnical Engineer is a type of Civil Engineer with a primary focus on the topography of the land and the attributes of rocks and soils in the building process. They will also study water tables and floodplains to come up with a best approach to developments. They will have a greater understanding of engineering issues in the environment than other engineers will have, and their specialist knowledge is invaluable across the world as developers seek to utilize the landscape to complement construction and minimize potential problems.

They explain the properties and potential applications of rock types and soils, and look at such environmental issues as flood plains and water tables, as well as how a building or development might sustain itself against the natural order of the landscape. Their information is invaluable to construction managers, geologists, researchers and the development industry. They will work on embankments and around waterworks such as relief tunnels and floodplains, but also the direction and siting of irrigation for home water supplies and agriculture. They will also monitor drilling.

The kinds of questions they may be looking to answer include: is the bedrock firm enough to construct something of this height? What is the potential for subsidence? Is it a flood plain? If so, what improvements to the below ground utilities are needed to improve the situation?

Where Does a Geotechnical Engineer Work?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of Geotechnical Engineers work in the geophysical engineering services, typically employed by a dedicated organization. They will work full-time and be subject to a salary, working a 40-hour week and employed to work on certain contracts at a time, the organization itself contracted to provide services rather than the individual. Some may work as freelance consultants or on a contract basis, providing the same services but as self-employed.

They will split their work time between working on site and in offices, conducting research or producing reports for decision makers. They may work in an advisory capacity and make recommendations, but will usually not be part of the decision-making process. They are often seen as “expert witnesses” on environmental issues with regard to construction and development.

Around one quarter will work in government, state, federal and local, as engineers for public works and public utility improvement. They may be involved in the building of new highways, public buildings and other civic features not normally using private companies.

What Is the Average Geotechnical Engineer Salary?

The average salary as at 2015 for a Geotechnical Engineer is $63,750 (median). The full range is $46,111 to $89,271 so it is a narrower range than most other applied sciences. Some states pay less than the national average and some pay more. For example, the most lucrative city is San Francisco, which pays 23% more than the national average. New York is a close second paying, on average, 14% more than the national average. Portland pays 10% more. The lowest paying state is Atlanta, which pays around 19% lower than the national average.

Geotechnical Engineering & Job Description

Recent Geotechnical Engineering Job Listings

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The information collected and analyzed by a Geotechnical Engineer has many uses, including building foundations or designing barriers to prevent contaminants from leaching into our natural environment. The specialized skills required for a Geotechnical Engineer can include:

  • A Bachelor's of Science degree in geotechnical engineering
  • Capability to work outdoors in various environmental and weather conditions
  • Ability to work as part of a team or independently
  • Conduct research analyses of geotechnical data and reports inside a laboratory or office
  • Exercise proficiency in written, oral and technical communication skills to communicate with a variety of individuals, such as supervisors, clients or stakeholders
  • Determine site conditions by sampling water, soil and rock at field sites
  • Use standard sampling methods in collecting samples
  • Label samples and record all observations
  • Possess excellent computer skills and ability to use specialized geotechnical software programs and databases
  • Communicate and participate at meetings, workshops, and training seminars

A Senior Geotechnical Project Manager or Senior Geotechnical Engineer uses many of the same skills as an entry level Geotechnical Engineer as well as management responsibilities. Jobs vary from company to company but typically, a Senior Geotechnical Engineer needs to possess the following skills:

  • A Master's degree or Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering
  • Experience working as a Geotechnical Engineer and project management
  • Offer new approaches and recommendations to projects to reduce costs and improve efficiency
  • Design site projects describing sampling methods and schedule of project
  • Develop the budget for site projects outlining all associated costs
  • Manage teams of Geotechnical Engineers at field sites
  • Ensure that timelines are being met and projects are on schedule
  • Provide training to staff and participate in developing new training programs
  • Participate in preserving current clients and development of new clients by providing exceptional service and consultation
  • Possess excellent oral, written and technical communication and presentation skills

What Is the Job Demand for Geotechnical Engineer?

Government monitoring statistics do not account for Geotechnical Engineering in terms of job demand. Therefore, we have used Civil Engineering as a base mark. Employment areas and salary are closely aligned, as is the type of work in which they will be engaged. The job outlook is expected to rise by around 9% in the coming decade (2014-2024). Specifically in Geotechnical Engineering, this could be higher as 11-12%. The role of a Geotechnical Engineer is more nuanced, requiring greater understanding of the natural world - particularly geology. Demand will be greater in towns and cities, and even states, where there is more development and redevelopment.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Geotechnical Engineer?

The recognized shortage in Geotechnical Engineering means there are more opportunities today to get involved in this growing discipline. There are no BA/BS degrees in Geotechnical Engineering, so students should study one of the many standard engineering options and build from there. All engineers need a BS at the very least for entry level jobs. As a recognized core STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and therefore a skills shortage. Those who take a major in Geotechnical Engineering should take minors and electives in math, physics and even environmental science to ensure a good, solid understanding of Geotechnical Engineering.

MS/MA degrees will provide a significant advantage, especially for those seeking senior roles and project management in the long-term. Successful Geotechnical Engineers have advanced critical think, analytical and language skills (for report writing). They may need to write reports for a variety of stakeholders.

Once the degree program(s), is complete, the candidate will need to seek accreditation in order to work as an engineer. The Professional Engineer License is only granted to those who took an accredited ABET degree.

What Kind Of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Geotechnical Engineer Have?

Geotechnical Engineering is a growing discipline. The following list is a brief summary of professional bodies:

  • ASCE Geo Institute: The division of American Society of Civil Engineers represents this growing body of academics and employees. They are one of the eight sub-bodies and were founded in 1996
  • Academy of Geoprofessionals: AGP was founded in 2008 by a number of former ASCE members in order to add extra credibility to the profession with formal certification. They offer a registered mark of professional excellence in the industry