How often are you asked the question, “So what do you do?” My guess is a lot, and your reply is probably something like this, “I’m a civil engineer…” and what follows is a litany of esoteric jargon and techno-babble that you’re on the verge of setting to music. Such an answer may serve you well in the engineering and technical circles, allowing you to pithily communicate years of experience to colleagues, but it might actually be a disservice to you individually and to the profession at large when you engage with John and Jane Q. Public.

Hear me out. We live in an age when the word “engineer” is used by an array of professions to define a scintillating variety of tasks that require advanced knowledge and training. As such, I think we can all agree that the term “engineer” connotates a technical expert. However, I would argue that not all professions engineer in quite the same way. I would further assert that civil engineering is unique in that public safety is the prime directive and motivation for everything we do. However, our friends, the Publics, aren’t always able to differentiate a civil engineer from a software, mechanical, or automotive engineer.

The next time you find yourself answering, “So what do you do?” Revise your well-rehearsed answer to include something relatable that directly impacts who you are talking to. And I don’t mean simply stating “I safeguard the public,” or “I develop sustainable solutions.” No, you’re going to have to tell a story, albeit an educational one. Talk about how your road design will result in fewer accidents, or state that your risk assessment will help decision makers allocate infrastructure funds efficiently, or describe how you saved the tax payers money by applying a new method. Whatever your tactic, relate how civil engineering impacts them, their family, and their community. In doing so, you’ll help to differentiate civil engineers in the public mindset, advance the profession as a whole, or at the very least be a better conversationalist.


Michael V. Konieczki, PE, D.WRE
ASCE Sacramento Section President