Education plays a significant role in determining how much civil engineers earn. In some cases, a Master's degree may outweigh experience for civil engineers seeking to earn higher salaries. However, a lagging economy can drastically reduce job opportunities for civil engineers, even if they do have a Master's degree.
Among other things, civil engineers design airports, bridges and dams. They also oversee the construction of projects that they design. Civil engineers need to be familiar with government regulations and possible environmental hazards, in order to design projects that meet local, state and federal laws and avoid environmental damage. They also must consider how well their projects will stand up to natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that civil engineers earned mean annual salaries of $81,180 in 2009. A May 2011 PayScale survey of more than 5,000 civil engineers showed that respondents with Master's degrees earned salaries that ranged from $55,912 to $108,090.
Civil engineers who worked in Washington, D.C. in 2009 earned some of the industry's highest wages. BLS data show that civil engineers who worked in D.C. that year earned mean annual salaries of $93,790. A Master's degree may bolster engineers' earnings more than experience does. The PayScale survey indicates that civil engineers with 10 to 19 years of experience earned salaries as high as $89,271 in May 2011, which is significantly less than the top salary reported by respondents who had Master's degrees.
The BLS predicts a 24-percent employment growth rate for civil engineering through 2018, which would add 67,600 jobs to the industry. The BLS connects high future demand for civil engineers to a growing population and a need to improve and expand U.S. transportation systems. Civil engineers will need to design better transportation systems that can efficiently handle an increased number of travelers as the population grows. Therefore, even civil engineers who don't have Master's degrees may find their best job prospects with government entities and companies that are handling major transportation projects.
Besides engineering firms, architectural and construction firms employ many civil engineers. Employment opportunities in those industries vary by location. BLS data show that civil engineers earned mean annual salaries of $82,040 at architectural and engineering firms in 2009. However, job opportunities dwindle for all civil engineers, regardless of their educational background, due to economic downturns. The BLS notes that a lagging economy usually causes companies to scale back or stop transportation projects.