The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Best places for civil engineers 2021
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Best places for civil engineers 2021

By Laurie A. Shuster

Houston, Los Angeles, and Denver top the list of the 10 best places to be a civil engineer this year — as they did last year. What’s new? Seattle and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina have slipped; Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia are on the move; and Dallas is rising fast. 

In ASCE’s Best Places for Civil Engineers 2021, some things have remained the same — and some have changed. As was the case in 2020, Houston, Los Angeles, and Denver take the highest spots in our top 10 list. But the No. 4 position — occupied last year by the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region — has been overtaken by Dallas, which moved up significantly from 10th place last year. Notably, a third Texas metropolitan region — the Austin/San Marcos area — moved into the top 10 for the first time.

chart showing the ten best places for civil engineers in the US in 2020 in terms of salary, cost of living and other factors. Houston tops the list.

Another city — Philadelphia — also made the top 10 list for the first time. And both Seattle and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina dropped out of the top 10 — to, respectively, positions 12 and 20. 

Of course, no such list can ever be exhaustive, and the right place for any given civil engineer is personal and subjective. But our annual index considers the important fundamentals: job openings for civil engineers, cost of living, and the results of ASCE’s exclusive civil engineering salary survey. From this data, the cities with the most promising outlook for civil engineers are determined. See below.

information showing how ASCE determined th best places scores

Everything is bigger in Texas
Why is the Lone Star State so well represented in the top 10 — with cities in the first, fourth, and 10th positions? Sean P. Merrell, P.E., PTOE, RAS, F.ASCE, who is a senior project manager for BGE Inc. in Frisco, Texas, as well as ASCE’s Region 6 governor and the Texas Section president, has a theory: “Texas is very business-friendly and open to growth,” he says. “In general, the state is against too much regulation and has low taxes. The houses are affordable. And we have a lot of good universities, and a lot of graduating engineering students want to stay in Texas.”

Homes are being built at a rapid clip in all three cities, Merrell notes. “And that brings road construction, water and power plants, and commercial and entertainment development,” he says.

“Also, in all three of these cities, there has been a lot of growth in taking existing development that hasn’t worked out and redeveloping it.”

For its part, the Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston, is pursuing more than 65 projects related to flood control in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, according to the HCFCD website. (Read “Engineers help prepare for hurricane season.”)

Dallas, meanwhile, is in the process of upgrading some of its many intersections and overpasses as well as building extensions to its Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail line, already the longest light-rail line in the country. And Austin is preparing for the arrival of a massive Tesla Cybertruck and battery plant as well as a new Amazon fulfilment center.

And there seems to be no limit to these cities’ expansion potential, with their suburbs outpacing their downtowns in terms of population growth, according to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Frisco, where Merrell works, was the fastest-growing city in the United States from 2010 to 2020, according to Kinder. Moreover, each suburb is seeking to establish its own “brand” distinct from, but still tangential to, its nuclear city, Merrell notes. In fact, at least in Texas, the term “suburb” may no longer be acceptable. “Frisco, for example, doesn’t want to be known as a suburb of Dallas,” Merrell says. “The Dallas Cowboys just opened a new headquarters here; where there used to be empty fields, now there are 25-story buildings. It’s like a new city core just popped up.”

Dallas, meanwhile, is in the process of upgrading some of its many intersections and overpasses as well as building extensions to its Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail line.

With all this growth, jobs for civil engineers in these metropolitan areas should remain plentiful. “Before last year (when COVID-19 struck), we always had trouble finding enough good candidates because there are so many companies here looking,” Merrell says. And now that the pandemic seems to be waning, at least in the United States, Merrell expects clients to resume their pre-pandemic spending. “We think next year, as long as things keep going the way they are right now, (clients) will be full steam ahead on a lot of their plans.”

LA’s story
Ports, rivers, highways, skyscrapers — and earthquakes. At No. 2 on the list again this year, Los Angeles has all this and more to generate plenty of high-paying jobs for civil engineers. And right now, the city has additional impetus for construction: the 2028 Olympics. From the Santa Monica State Beach west of the city, to Lake Perris to the east, dozens of existing sites will be used for the Olympic Games, many with at least temporary modifications required.

And with venues spread across nearly 100 mi, the area of greatest need will be transportation. “A big focus is on how athletes and tourists will travel around LA because many of the locations are miles apart,” explains Ruwanka Purasinghe, EIT, a civil engineering associate at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and president of ASCE’s Metropolitan Los Angeles Branch. Purasinghe points out that the Los Angeles Metro is aggressively pursuing its “Twenty Eight by ’28 Initiative,” which targets 28 transportation projects that must be completed before the games. These include new subway lines, expansions to express lanes, and supporting infrastructure that will continue to deliver benefits long after the Olympic torch has been extinguished.

Ports, rivers, highways, skyscrapers — and earthquakes. At No. 2 on the list again this year, Los Angeles has all this and more to generate plenty of high-paying jobs.

And there’s more. Kelli Bernard, the executive vice president and national cities lead for Los Angeles-based AECOM, says the Olympics have “created a sense of urgency for many infrastructure projects, including the modernization program at Los Angeles (International) Airport.” The last time the city hosted the Olympics, in 1984, student housing was used to lodge athletes, and that will again be the case. Residences at UCLA and the University of Southern California will need to be expanded for this purpose.

Power and water remain issues for the city as well. “We have a large focus on replacing aging infrastructure and growing our local water sources through increased groundwater remediation, stormwater capture, and the use of recycled water,” says Purasinghe. The LADWP’s efforts to improve local water supplies’ resiliency and reliability — called the Operation NEXT project — aims to recycle 100% of Los Angeles’ wastewater by 2035.

chart showing the tip 5 median civil engineer base salaries by US census divisions (pacific, west south central, mid atlantic, south atlantic, and mountain). the chart compares 2018 and 2019.

“On our power side,” Purasinghe says, “we have a goal to reach 70% renewable energy by 2035.” The agency will accomplish this by expanding solar, wind, and hydroelectric options as well as increasing energy storage capacities and upgrading the region’s transmission system.

All these goals are driving a booming job market for civil engineers. “We’re hiring!” Bernard says, noting that AECOM is specifically seeking more experienced engineers. “There’s real opportunity for those in advanced levels of their careers. The majority of civil engineering firms in LA are very busy and short on staff. If you’re qualified, passionate, and want to work on projects that really make a difference, this is a great time to explore Los Angeles.”

Denver shines
Ask Alex Jiang, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE — a transportation engineer with Jacobs in Denver and the president of ASCE’s Denver Younger Member Group — what makes the Mile High City a great place for civil engineers, and you’ll hear about everything from bridges and highways to dams, schools, and mass transit. The 2020 Report Card for Colorado’s Infrastructure gave the state a C-, indicating that there is much work to be done throughout the state, Jiang says. “The exciting news is that the leaders in Colorado are aware of this situation, and they are making laws to make things better,” Jiang says.

Chief among those policy efforts is a proposal released in March to spend $4 billion on transportation projects across the state of Colorado over the next decade. By raising fuel taxes and increasing fees on electric vehicles and ride-sharing services, the state hopes to invest in infrastructure that will improve roadways, reduce congestion, electrify municipal vehicles, and extend mass transit options.

There is plenty for everyone to do in, and like about, Denver.

“The City and County of Denver (have) been pushing to increase multimodal travel, with a big focus on providing equitable transportation and adding bicycle lanes,” says Aaron L. Leopold, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior geotechnical engineer for Shannon & Wilson in Denver and the president of ASCE’s Denver Branch. “This has only accelerated through the pandemic with the addition of many mixed-use streets.

“And every day, it appears that a Front Range rail line from Fort Collins to Pueblo gets closer to becoming a reality.”

And construction at the Denver International Airport is ongoing. After a disagreement with a contractor, DIA took over a $770 million project aimed at overhauling its Great Hall at Jeppesen Terminal — the facility under the iconic tentlike roof — in 2019. Since then, the project has taken off. Phase 1, creating new ticketing areas to handle projected passenger increases, will be completed by the end of this year, and the security-focused phase 2 will continue until 2024. “They are continuously working on improving and maintaining the airport,” Jiang says. “Aviation engineers shouldn’t worry about finding a job here.”

And neither should engineers in water-related fields, Leopold says. “Multiple large drinking water and stormwater projects have also been pushing forward in Denver, including Denver Water’s Northwater Treatment Plant and its Gross Reservoir Expansion,” he says. “Climate change and continued population growth have accelerated the need to preserve the water that the state provides to most of the western U.S. while also maintaining the beauty of the Colorado River. To that end, Denver voters have established a new tax that will generate $20 to $40 million to combat climate change and economic disparity in Denver.”

Renewable energy projects are also in the offing. “Colorado is famous for two of nature’s gifts — sunlight and wind,” Jiang says. “And government and private sectors are trying to take advantage of them both. I don’t think it will be hard for energy engineers to call Colorado home.”

In fact, there is plenty for everyone to do in, and like about, Denver; Jiang and Leopold mention the adage that Denver boasts 300 sunny days a year. Jiang says the moderate temperatures and low humidity mean “it’s easy to breathe here through all seasons and perfect for indoor and outdoor activities all year-round.” Mountains, concerts, snow sports, craft beer, and four major league sports teams to root for are among the best parts of living in Denver, Jiang says.

Capital ideas
Like many places, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area — comprising the District of Columbia as well as parts of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia — is preparing for post-pandemic life, primarily by reexamining transportation priorities. For years, the region has been among the most traffic-congested during its morning and afternoon rush hours, which often turn into three-hour-long affairs. And the city’s transportation situation is complicated by the fact that the District, Virginia, and Maryland — known colloquially as the DMV — all operate their own transit systems in addition to being served by the Metro subways and buses operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

A new plan, though, aims to connect Maryland Area Regional Commuter’s passenger rail service with the northern routes of the Virginia Railway Express to create a seamless, one-seat experience for riders commuting to and from the suburbs. And WMATA recently approved $4.7 billion in spending to enable it to resume full service and complete safety repairs and reliability improvements as the pandemic eases. What’s more, the Metro’s Silver Line subway extension to Dulles International Airport is a project still in progress, aiming for an early 2022 opening. This is spawning tremendous residential and mixed-use development along the route.

“There are significant transportation challenges to solve here,” says Robert Victor, P.E., F.ASCE, the newly promoted senior vice president and mid-Atlantic operating unit manager at Dewberry, which is based in one of the District’s most populous satellite cities — Fairfax, Virginia. “Incorporating all modes — cars, public transit, freight rail, bikes, pedestrians — into our regional planning and design is a real need and a focus of our public agencies here.”

Like many places, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is preparing for post-pandemic life, primarily by reexamining transportation priorities.

The region also plans to take a “more environmentally friendly approach” to water delivery, wastewater treatment, and stormwater and watershed management, he says. “Considering our location relative to the ocean and to tidal-influenced waterways, sea level rise and coastal resilience are becoming more and more important here,” Victor says. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently tapped Dewberry to develop a coastal resilience master plan, a project-based road map to be delivered before the end of the year.

“Projects focusing on clean energy are on the rise in Washington, D.C.,” adds Jameelah Muhammad Ingram, P.E. M.ASCE, a lead structural engineer at WSP and the vice president of ASCE’s National Capital Section. “For example, government agencies are focusing on a transition to zero-emission vehicles, including buses. And when that happens, existing bus facilities must be upgraded. Powering buses by way of electricity involves modifications to the grid and utility infrastructure.”

For this reason, Ingram says, “Tangible projects will continue to grow as agencies move from planning studies to action and progress toward a sustainable future.”

What else might make the busy DMV region attractive to civil engineers? “Location, population density, and cool projects,” Victor says. “The mid-Atlantic is a national or regional hub for many engineering and architecture firms, and it has a critical mass of professional opportunities in the private and public sectors.”

And whether engineers prefer modest, local projects or regional megaprojects, the DMV has it all. “There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of large and small projects of real community significance,” Victor says. “And it’s also one of the few places where you can work on construction projects with a more than billion-dollar price tag.”

Chicago lights up
Like so many cities, Chicago is planning for its future, and that means no shortage of work for civil engineers in the Windy City. In 2018, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning adopted an initiative called ON TO 2050 that “guides transportation investments and frames regional priorities (for) development, the environment, the economy, and other issues affecting quality of life,” according to the CMAP website.

The initiative calls for spending $475 million on at least 70 projects in and around Chicago, including roadway and intersection improvements, train station reconstruction, rail crossing grade separations, and bus electrification and route improvements. The plan also aims to ensure safe nonmotorized transportation options for residents and improve air quality, among other goals.

“Chicago is committed to maintaining its distinction as a world-class city, and constant infrastructure improvements are key in reaching that goal,” says Sandra Lynn Homola, P.E., M.ASCE, a department manager for water resources at EXP US Services Inc. and the treasurer of the ASCE Illinois section. “The state has recently signed the Rebuild Illinois capital plan, and that will make $45 billion worth of investments in roads, bridges, railroads, universities, and state facilities over the next six years.”

Transportation is not all that is moving forward in Chicago. Multiuse development is happening at various locations.

Investment is also continuing in the O’Hare International Airport Modernization Program, the Chicago Transit Authority’s many train line and station renovations, and the Regional Transportation Authority’s commuter train lines and stations, Homola notes. “CenterPoint Intermodal Center in the southwest part of the Chicago metro region is the largest master-planned inland port in North America,” she says, “and they are projecting the freight demand to double over the next 20 years.”

But transportation is not all that is moving forward in Chicago. Multiuse development is happening at various locations, including The 78 Chicago and Lincoln Yards. The 78 Chicago is an entirely new neighborhood along the Chicago River that will be anchored by the University of Illinois Discovery Partners Institute, a technology hub dedicated to developing tech talent, fostering applied research and development, and launching new businesses, according to the DPI website.

Lincoln Yards, master-planned by native firm SOM, will connect Chicagoans to more than 50 acres of riverfront in the city’s most iconic neighborhoods: Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Lincoln Park. And where multiuse development flourishes, infrastructure follows. “Chicago is investing in new park space and recreational facilities while continuing its ongoing efforts to line or replace aging sewers and water mains throughout the city,” Homola says.

All this work, plus plenty of activities and cultural events and many civil engineering employers to choose from, makes Chicago a great place for civil engineers, especially those just starting out, Homola says. “There appear to be more job openings for civil engineers than in past years, and there is a particular need for younger engineers in the range of zero to five years of experience.”

New York’s state of mind
“The New York City area is always growing and reinventing itself.” That statement, from James Starace, P.E., M.ASCE, the chief of engineering for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, may never be more true than in the post-pandemic era.

For example, through its Open Streets program, the city’s department of transportation mandated limited or no vehicular access to certain streets during the pandemic so that residents could get outdoors and local businesses could thrive. Now that much is returning to pre-pandemic status in the city — Broadway is set to reopen in September — many of those roads will again be devoted to traffic. But not all of them.

Activists in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, for example, succeeded in keeping a swath of 34th Street closed to cars, according to an article in qns.com. And on the Open Streets website, the city’s department of transportation says it “will work with interested community partners to develop operations plans” that combine safe community access with the traffic needs of the city.

That kind of creative thinking — the same spirit that recently drove such innovative infrastructure as the High Line, the Shed, and the reinvention of the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station and Tammany Hall — is precisely what makes the Big Apple so vibrant. (Read “Tammany Rising.”)

And what keeps the city moving, of course, is its massive network of transportation infrastructure.

“The airports, commuter trains, subways, bridges, tunnels, and ports are critical to the region’s economic viability,” Starace says. And while the pandemic may have slowed some construction in the region last year, many projects are progressing, he says. “A new LaGuardia Airport terminal opened during the summer of 2020, and the construction of a new terminal at Newark (New Jersey) Liberty International Airport continued, with a completion forecast for 2022.”

And what keeps New York city moving, of course, is its massive network of transportation infrastructure.

And many of the nation’s oldest and most revered bridges are being replaced or refurbished, including the Goethals, the Bayonne, and the Tappan Zee (which was replaced by the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge). “On the 90-year-old George Washington Bridge, the critical work of replacing all 592 suspender ropes continued, with the north side of the world’s busiest bridge completed in April,” Starace says.

“In the coming years, the region will continue to move forward with infrastructure projects in just about every major sector,” he says. “Many of these projects are large-scale investments to renew aging assets, including the redevelopments of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and John F. Kennedy International Airport.” The Port Authority is also moving forward with a replacement of the elevated railway, called AirTrain, at Newark Liberty and is actively pursuing the addition of such a system at LaGuardia.

The metro area will need the creativity of younger civil engineers to keep it competitive, Starace says. “We need the new generation of civil engineers to bring fresh ideas, embrace 21st-century technology, and take the region and the country into the future.” And in New York, as in other cities, younger engineers should come prepared to incorporate sustainability and resiliency in all they do.

“New York City, and the region that surrounds it, is a global economic and cultural hub,” Starace points out. “But it is also very much a city of bricks and mortar. Our built legacy includes some of the greatest engineering landmarks in the world. Civil engineers are the stewards of these assets.

“So I anticipate that the New York City region will remain a destination for top engineering talent for decades to come.”

Atlanta heats up
Atlanta has become the heart of a regional hub for well-financed high-tech startups, according to TechCrunch.com, at least in part because of the region’s many technical universities — including Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Emory — as well as its historically black colleges — Morehouse and Spelman. These startups will attract educated employees to high-paying jobs, and that bodes well for high-end development in and around the city.

“We are seeing lots of new development and redevelopment across the metro Atlanta area, and there are all types of infrastructure needs to support that ongoing growth,” says Katherine Gurd, P.E., CFM, F.ASCE, the division director of stormwater services in Gwinnett County’s Department of Water Resources. “For example, as areas densify, older sewers need to be replaced with larger-capacity sewers, and we are seeing sewers expanded to areas that previously did not have (them).”

And with one of the busiest airports in the world and an extensive highway network in need of maintenance and upgrades, there will be no shortage of jobs for transportation engineers either.

In 2015, Georgia’s House Bill 170 created annual fees on alternative-fuel vehicles and heavy trucks, and those fees are funding more than 2,500 mi in roadway resurfacing, 188 bridge replacements, 300 bridge rehabilitation and maintenance projects, and hundreds of traffic safety projects, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. “With the passage of H.B. 170 in 2015, Georgia gained around $1 billion in additional transportation funds each year,” Gurd says. “We have been in a huge transportation boom ever since.”

Moreover, Georgia is planning the nation’s first trucks-only interstate lanes, an expansion to Interstate 75 from McDonough — just south of Atlanta — to Macon. In April, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced a virtual forum with contractors interested in the 41 mi, two-lane expansion.

“Atlanta is an engineering hub for the Southeast,” Gurd says. “Every major firm has an office here.” And with major sports teams, arts, culture, entertainment, and such attractions as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Georgia Aquarium — recently expanded to include sharks that can be viewed from a diving cage — Atlanta has much to offer.

“The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that metro Atlanta will add another 2.9 million people and 1.2 million jobs by 2050,” Gurd says. “More people (means) more infrastructure and smarter development. Civil engineers are key to designing the infrastructure that will allow for that growth.”

Philadelphia rings in
Seattle and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina (known as the Research Triangle) were bumped off the top 10 list this year by Philadelphia and Austin. Like many cities, Philadelphia is seeing a resurgence of private development in its downtown core. That, in turn, is boosting urban infrastructure projects.

“There are private developments and structures going up as well as agency work,” says Robert M. Wright, P.E., M.ASCE, a project manager at McMahon Associates in the suburb of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, and a past president of ASCE’s Philadelphia Section. “I don’t think any civil engineers are hurting for work in Philadelphia right now.”

The city is leveraging its location along the Delaware River with mixed-use developments, including one at the South Philadelphia Navy Yard and one at Penn’s Landing. The 109-acre Navy Yard expansion will include residences for the first time — mainly apartments in restored older buildings — along with restaurants, shops, offices, and technology labs. Plans for Penn’s Landing — long known for its recreational attractions and nightlife — call for a new 11.5-acre park and civic space, an architecturally distinctive pedestrian bridge, and a 2 mi on-road extension of the Delaware River Trail.

Philadelphia is seeing a resurgence of private development in its downtown core. That, in turn, is boosting urban infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, the city is continuing work on its 25-year program to reduce stormwater flows into its combined sewer system, called Green City, Clean Waters. The initiative emphasizes the use of green stormwater infrastructure. “That is a huge program in the city’s water department right now,” Wright says.

info about the 2021 ASCE salary report and data

In fact, so much is happening in the City of Brotherly Love that even during the pandemic, Wright says, work did not slow for long. “By last fall we were back to where we were in terms of workload,” he says. As restrictions continue to be lifted, he expects work to increase to the point that competitors may target the region’s “best and brightest” employees. “We see a possible feeding frenzy,” Wright says.

To be closer to clients and attract younger engineers, McMahon recently opened a small office in the city’s core business district, Center City. And Wright says his firm is not alone; other suburban firms — and even companies from as far away as New York City — have done the same. “The big city agencies are all in Center City, so a lot of firms have opened offices there, even if they are just small offices,” Wright says.

The moves appeal to millennial engineers, he says. Four of McMahon’s younger employees moved from the suburbs to the city when the company opened its Center City office. “It’s where the action is,” he says. “And they can walk, Uber, or skateboard to work.”

Other cities that ranked highly in this year’s Best Places for Civil Engineers, Nos. 11-20, are, respectively: Seattle; Phoenix; Minneapolis; Boston; Sacramento, California; Tampa, Florida; Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas); Orlando, Florida; the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina; and Newark, New Jersey. Want to discuss why your hometown is the best place to be a civil engineer? Start a discussion at collaborate.asce.org.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Civil Engineering.

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