Discover the wealth of rewarding careers in civil engineering, says Kate Hilpern

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) will be Britain's first major new railway for over a century and is just one of the exciting projects that today's graduate civil engineers are getting involved in. "I first worked on the CTRL during a summer work placement at university and it was amazing to see its development in action," says Christine Allen, 24, a graduate engineer for Balfour Beatty. "The first summer, it was all about planning, but two years later, a massive viaduct was being built. One of the great rewards of being a civil engineer is seeing your work turn into something tangible, and this project was particularly exciting."

With government plans to dramatically increase house-building in the South-east, the infrastructure - including new rail links, schools and hospitals - is another example of the diversity of projects now on offer to civil engineers.

"There are opportunities opening up across all sectors and, because there is a current skills shortage, employers are giving graduates responsibility earlier and earlier," says Jon Prichard, director of membership at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). "In the past, fresh graduates were often expected to churn out calculations in the design office and bang in pegs on site, but now employers are getting other people to do that and are really utilising graduate skills."

And because working in engineering gives you vital management skills and the chance to become professionally chartered, there are plenty of opportunities for high-fliers to progress quickly.

Perhaps the greatest reward of being a civil engineer is knowing that you are making a lasting and positive impression on the world. Whether you're rebuilding pipelines in war-torn developing countries, refurbishing a new hospital wing, improving water supplies or designing a new bridge, you are directly contributing to making the world a better place. Everything you do will make life easier for people.

Salaries can be impressive too. It's true that you won't get paid as much as an investment banker, but you won't have to work until midnight every day, either. Average starting salaries for graduate engineers are around £19,000, rising to more than £50,000 for those with chartered status.

The diversity of opportunity is also worth considering, says Prichard. "If you want to stay in your own area or want an office-based lifestyle, it is possible. If you want an outdoor life or an internationally mobile lifestyle, it's also possible." Indeed, 38 per cent of employers have offices abroad, while 72 per cent offer secondments in the UK and overseas.

So if civil engineering really is this good, why is the industry suffering from a skills shortage? It's certainly not because too few people are studying the subject. Rather, it's that many graduates are lost to other professions because of a lack of awareness of career opportunities in their sector. A significant proportion are snapped up by the City after university.

Prichard adds: "The skills shortage is also partly a result of the sector's Eighties boom turning to bust in the early Nineties. Together with the fact that the number of people going to university increased, it meant we had a lower demand for, and an oversupply of, graduates. The UK economy has since returned to a steady period of growth, so we need more again."

What's more, opportunities for graduates now exist in both small and multinational organisations and the requirements are similar. "Problem-solving abilities are probably the most sought-after attribute," comments Prichard.

JacobsGIBB Ltd agrees. "As a civil engineer, you will spend most of your working life solving problems," explains a spokesman. "This does not only mean you will need the ability to solve mathematical equations. You should also be able to succeed at a whole series of day-to-day issues, such as knowing how to condense your brilliant ideas into a concise, understandable document for a proposal or a report to a client."

Meanwhile, Jeff Keer, group training and development manager for Balfour Beatty, equally values enthusiasm. "A real interest in the industry is key, as is a keenness to take on responsibility and a challenge."

Communication skills are also crucial, says Arup. "Communication is vital in an industry in which most people work in teams and bid for projects," says a spokesman.

Amy Worsell, a civil engineer at the Babtie Group in Preston, advises anyone going into the construction industry to gain as much work experience as possible. "It's important to get to see how different companies work," says Worsell, who was voted Graduate of the Year 2002 by New Civil Engineer magazine. "I made a point of noticing how well the trainees were being treated and what sort of experiences they were getting."

The hours can be long and the work can be pressurised, admits Sam Swayne, a site engineer on the graduate training scheme at AMEC. "But the work is challenging, fun, varied and I love it."

Case study

Christine Allen, 24, is a graduate engineer for Balfour Beatty

I decided to study civil engineering at university because it creates so many career opportunities.

After graduating and some travelling, I got on a training scheme with Balfour Beatty and spent my first two years as a site engineer on the A120 project. I worked on drainage, fencing and roadworks, gaining a lot of practical experience, as well as in liaising with designers and the public. Now, I'm on a one-year design secondment with a company in Belfast and I'm currently working on a road service project. This is part of my route to getting chartered status.

I like the fact that civil engineers have such an impact on people's lives. From turning on a tap to driving somewhere, we are part of the system making that possible.