What do you do for a living?
Technically you would call it a stream restoration engineer. It falls under the broader category of environmental engineering.
You could probably boil everything that I do down to the main concept that we want rivers to transport dirt correctly. Now that sounds pretty boring but it entails a river depositing too much sediment or eroding away too much sediment from the banks so what we do is we take the stream systems in urban or in rural settings and we rebuild them to reflect what they would have been had they been left natural.
What does your work entail?
We do all of the site analysis, the initial data collection. We do a lot of surveying with laser survey gear or aerial survey gear if we get flown. We do the request for proposals. We do the scope of work, all the paperwork associated with getting the project, then once we get the initial data we do the design. We do the contracting too and we use a lot of computer system design software. After the design is done we move into the construction that we oversee. And then afterwards, there’s usually some period of monitoring involved where we say OK how has the habitat improved or not improved since we did this restoration so we can learn a little bit more.
A lot of the misconception[about engineers] people get in school is that engineering is just strictly math, science, and formulas and is very boring and you’re always at a computer with a bunch of nerds. But a lot of what we do is outdoors. A lot of it is data collection. A lot of it is site visits. It’s not just the applying of the formulas. There’s a lot of creativity. To design a stream and make it flow wherever you want it is very fun and it’s usually with a lot of outdoorsy and outgoing people.
What is a typical work week like for you?
There is no typical work week. Some weeks in the summer, because we have or we do all our construction during the summer, we can be working straight for ten days. Obviously since we’re working in rivers it’s very dependent on weather so you can be working straight for ten days and then have seven days of rain where you have to get everything out of the river because you don’t want everything washed away so it’s heavily dependent on the weather in the summer. In the winter you’re doing all your extra work and getting things ready for the construction period. But I think it’s probably the same with most jobs these days you could expect to work a 40 or 50 hour week every week on average.
In the summertime it’s mainly outdoors during the day but I’ve done projects in the winter months where we’re in streams in November/December/January where you’re wearing a 5/8 inches or ¾ inch thick wetsuit just to keep yourself warm. There’s blocks of ice hitting you so it is kind of intense. So these projects can be done during the winter but it’s not ideal. Usually in the winter it’s a lot of computer work.
How did you get started in this career?
My dad is an engineer so I’ve been doing engineering since I was just about a knee high and so I’ve kind of had this engrained in my brain. I love being outside. I love getting my hands dirty. I like collecting my own data and then doing the analysis. I guess I just kind of defaulted into it by not wanting to do anything else.
What do you like about what you do?
I like that it improves habitat. I like that it’s good for the environment. I like that you get involved with communities. Plus most of people are usually really happy with the work that we are doing, that we have done, or that we will do for them. It’s also just fun managing people, time, and budgets and seeing your initial site go from something that you designed, to something you constructed, and then to something that people can enjoy.
What do you dislike about it?
The variability in the hours is sometimes very hard to handle. Like when you are trying to work the 60 or 70 hour weeks. Those get you exhausted, you’re tired and your back hurts, your knees hurt, and your hands hurt so it’s not as much fun. You miss out on Friday and Saturday nights sometimes. It’s definitely worth it but maybe not to you at the time.
Also a lot of times we are involved with many, many, many different groups, government and private agencies, and towns so there is a lot of communication that needs to be done. A lot of people have their hands in these projects a lot of the time and so it’s annoying sometimes to have to report to 50 different people and agencies who aren’t always sure of what they’re talking about even though they’re the ones making the decision.
How do you make money or how are you compensated in this job?
We put out a whatever request for proposal and draft up a scope of work. Whatever we budget for our time for the project is usually what we have to get paid so sometimes you make a bunch, sometimes you lose your shirt but you usually have a good idea of how you’re going to come out so it’s not hourly it’s sort of project by project.
How much money do you make in this job or career?
Well it’s very variable depending on what projects we get and how much we think that we are going to need for each one which can obviously vary greatly from project to project but I would say on average right now I probably make around $50-55 a year.
How much money did you make starting out in this career?
My first job I was paid $42,500 and it was doing more civil engineering. I was doing parking lots designs and things like that. That was with my Bachelor’s straight out of college.
Are there any perks associated with this job?
The fast cars and women are great. Joking. It takes a certain person to want to be an engineer. Usually the first two years of engineering school you see about half the kids dropout and go somewhere else. So it definitely takes a certain type of person but you feel really good about the work that you’ve done and the work that you’ve done hopefully helping people and helping the environment . I think that that would probably be the biggest perk that we see.
Also, you do get to set your own hours. Yes, the work needs to get done but if it rains and you can’t get out there then you don’t have to work that day. Or if you are ahead of schedule you can take a few days off so setting your own schedule and working outside and being very physical in the work that you do is nice. It’s not monotonous, the site is always changing, the people are always changing, it’s very dynamic.
What education or skills are needed to do this?
Again the hardworking thing definitely comes into play and you really have to be a critical thinker. You’ve got to be able to think ahead and be willing to sort of work outside of any scope that people might normally expect to work in. As far as backgrounds it’s a lot of math, a lot of science and engineering classes. People do tend to have a lot of different backgrounds in this field; people can be biologists, zoologists, entomologists as well as engineers. There’s a bunch of different reasons to do stream restoration and so really you want to know a lot about flowers, plants, sediment transport, hydrology, hydraulics, all of that different stuff.
As far as schooling is concerned, as with any degree that you get these days you don’t learn much about the real world in school. You take a lot of engineering classes and they tell you a lot of math and formulas and science and then you get out in the real world and you sort of learn that there are programs to do that or you can’t just apply something. You have to go out and get your hands dirty and figure it out for yourself and how to apply it.
If you’re specifically interested in stream restoration or environmental engineering I would say definitely enroll in engineering your freshmen year of college because you can’t really transfer into it unless you’re coming from something with a heavy math and science background. I would say do internships, get out and volunteer, things like that. That all gives you incredibly valuable experience. But as far as college, just takes your chance in engineering. Who knows, you might like it and if not you can always switch out and you’re already ahead for whatever else you might want to do.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The interaction between project managers, town officials, the public, the outreach to the public—all of that. It’s a very, it can be a sensitive process. It can be time consuming. It can be frustrating. So dealing with the different branches of the people who are involved with the project, it’s a difficult task as well as just the sheer planning that is involved with a lot of these things. You don’t want to flood people. You don’t want to make anybody angry so there’s a lot of thinking ahead and really seeing your projects as a whole. Those are probably two of the toughest things.
What would you say is most rewarding about it?
Like I mentioned earlier being outside is great. I think it’s really rewarding being able to go from breaking ground or standing on a site doing the survey, taking the existing data, coming up with a design, building it sort of with your own two hands, and then seeing the results afterwards. The entire process is just—it’s a lot of fun to be able to build something like that. That’s one of the more rewarding things and the community responses are usually pretty positive and that’s always fun to see.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Stick with your classes and stick with engineering in school. They try and weed people out in engineering by making you take hard classes and boring and general classes your first two years before you start getting into the interesting stuff. A lot of people think that engineering of any sort, not just environmental engineering, is all just math and science and formulas and books and reading and that type of thing and it’s not. It’s very visible these days in the things that you do. It makes a difference and it’s a lot of fun once you are out of school.
Also with engineering there’s always going to be jobs. Engineers do everything to do in the city like transportation, water, communications, roads, anything like that and so there’s probably always going to be jobs as long as there are humans.
How much time off do you get or take?
Standard one week of sick, two weeks of vacation but really you can take off as much time as you want as long as you get your work done. If you are able to complete it in one day, great then you’ve got the rest of the time of the project off but that’s probably not going to happen. Overall though I would say that I get more than the average person at about four weeks a year.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Well like I was saying earlier a lot of the misconception people get in school is that engineering is just strictly math, science, and formulas and is very boring and you’re always at a computer with a bunch of nerds. But a lot of what we do is outdoors. A lot of it is data collection. A lot of it is site visits. It’s not just the applying of the formulas. There’s a lot of creativity. To design a stream, make it flow wherever you want it is very fun and it’s usually with a lot of outdoorsy and outgoing people.
The next question is what are your goals and dreams for the future in this job?
Right now a buddy of mine and myself are working to develop a program. It’s a program that we will hopefully turn into a software program one of these days that will take your existing data and all your parameters that you can find into this spreadsheet program and it’ll output all the information that you need for your design. It will take a lot of the danger and human error out of the work.
It will make it so that everyone can do this because we want people to be doing it who are not only engineers but who are biologists or somebody who wants to make a river more healthy for the fish habitat, for butterflies, for anything, even worms. So we want to make it more available for the public to be able to do without having to know what the engineering and math and science is behind it.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
Stream restoration is a growing field. It’s a dynamic field. There are practices that we did five years ago that we don’t use anymore because they’re debunked. They don’t work as well as other things and it’s fun working in a field that is growing. You get to come up with new stuff and new ways to do these things. It’s sort of a playground and it’s creative and you don’t always have a boss telling you what to do and how to do it because we’re always pushing the envelope to come up with a better way to do things.
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