What is a Structural Engineer?

Christopher J. Selvaggio(Photo: Kevin Fitzsimons, WOSU)

Christopher J. Selvaggio, PE

What exactly do you do?
I design bridges, retaining walls, and other structures that you see around the city.

Describe a typical day.
A typical day might include figuring out how big girders need to be to support a new bridge deck. Some beams can be deeper than 10 feet and over 100 feet long.

How do people react when they learn what you do?
People usually ask many questions, like ‘How do you know all the pieces you design will fit together?’ or ‘How do you know how strong to make a bridge?’

How did you become a Bridge/Structural Engineer?
After I completed my Civil Engineering Degree, the company I went to work for had a great need for bridge designers and I thought it would be interesting.

What disappoints you about your job?
I am disappointed that fewer people are going into engineering as a career. There is great need for engineers now and in the future.

How has your job changed over time?
The computer has revolutionized how designs are created. New software is continually changing the methods and speed of design.

How will your job be different ten years from now?
Most bridges we drive over every day are 50 years old or more. Future work will be more focused on rehabilitation or reconstruction of these aging structures.

What are some of the most important skills and abilities needed for this job?
Math and science are very important, as well as the ability to think logically and figure things out on your own.

How much of that is learned and how much is natural aptitude?
Each is very important. I was actually taught to design bridges after I started my job, but it helps to have a curiosity about how things work. If you like to take things apart and enjoy “story problems”, then structural engineering might be for you.

What advice do you have for people who want to enter this field?
Study hard. It is very challenging. After several years at this job, new things pop up all the time that require a unique solution. The solution many times is found by using things I first learned in high school.

What do you wish someone had told you before you left high school that would’ve helped you with your career?
Pay attention to the details.