More importantly, they can tell you how to design foundations, or how to excavate and support a tunnel, safely and economically.
Geotechnical engineers are convinced working with the ground is the most challenging and exciting branch of civil engineering.
This, they argue, is because the behaviour of materials such as concrete and steel is well understood and reliable. But soil and rock, the main materials of geotechnical engineering, are much less predictable.
Ground-related issues are the greatest uncertainty in civil engineering projects and geotechnical engineering is less reliant on prescriptive and standardised design. There is plenty of opportunity and scope for innovative and creative engineering.
An international team of geotechnical engineers saved the leaning tower of Pisa from almost certain collapse; geotechnical engineers were responsible for stopping Big Ben and large parts of Westminster from disappearing into a big hole during construction of the Jubilee Line extension; and they are also involved in understanding how to protect buildings during earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Good geotechnics requires expertise in both civil engineering and engineering geology. Most geotechnical engineers studied civil engineering or earth sciences as undergraduates, acquiring specialist knowledge through on-the-job experience and postgraduate training. Almost all geotechnical engineers aged over 30 have a masters degree, often having been sponsored by their employer.
A first degree in civil engineering is a great starting point and definitely considered an advantage over other related subjects. But make sure you pick a civils course with a strong geotechnical component and preferably one offering a "geology for engineers" option.
If you have an earth science degree, a great way into industry is by working for a site investigation contractor. A couple of years' experience here will give you a good start and put you in a strong position to move into geotechnical contracting or consulting.
Bear in mind many geotechnical employers are not over-keen on four-year civil engineering MEng courses – they may consider them too broad-based for a successful career in geotechnics. Generally, geotechnical divisions within large consultants and contractors offer the best training schemes – but small employers can offer more diverse experience and give responsibility sooner.
ENERGY GETS ME GOING
Demand for energy is going to keep on growing Đ it is fundamental to modern society.
Engineers will play a crucial role in equipping the UK with generating technologies, a supply system and methods of energy conservation that will enable economic growth and provide the population with the convenience they expect.
Renewable energy sources like wind power are just beginning to become significant. Wave and tidal stream generation are in their infancy but look promising witness the excitement over received plans for a Severn Barrage. Wave power technologies are expected to reach maturity – meaning they can be applied commercially – in about 10 years. The government wants to push renewables' contribution to the UK energy mix from 2% now to at least 10% by 2010 and possibly 20% by 2020. "The market is crying out for engineers," says the National Energy Foundation, an alternative energy association.
A political hot potato, but becoming more likely, is the construction of new nuclear power capacity, with backers of nuclear arguing that it is CO2 free. The first generations of nuclear power stations have left behind a legacy of waste and defunct radioactive structures that must be decommissioned and cleared away.
To make the case properly for building new nuclear stations many argue that historic problems must be sorted out. It may not sound very glamorous, but doing the dirty work is going to be an immense technical and logistical challenge. If problem solving turns you on, nuclear decommissioning will be at least as interesting as any new build.
Surprisingly, coal offers new opportunities. For the time being, it is cheaper to import foreign coal than to revive the UK mining industry, but "clean coal" technology, including the development of new more efficient combustion technology and methods to remove pollutants from exhaust gases, is on the rise.
For more information on the geotechnical sector, NCE's sister magazine Ground Engineering publishes an annual Geotechnical Services File, a comprehensive listing of the UK industry. It profiles virtually all the active companies in the sector, and is an essential starting point for anybody thinking of entering the industry. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org