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Career profile: Coastal engineering and management

Coastal engineering and management involves a range of disciplines related to the interaction of the sea with the land. 

Cleveley coastal protection scheme. Flood protection will demand require a major influx of innovative engineers to meet the challenges of rising sea levels
Cleveley coastal protection scheme. Flood protection will demand require a major influx of innovative engineers to meet the challenges of rising sea levels

In changing the way that we manage the shoreline, we must take heed of the natural processes at work in order to maximise the desired outcome at the project site and further afield.

What does a civil engineer in the coastal engineering & management sector do?

Coastal engineering and management not only involves construction in coastal areas and the project stages leading up to that, but ever increasingly it involves understanding the implications of letting nature take its course. Coastal engineers are usually qualified in civil engineering, and must also understand the principles of oceanography, geology and other aspects of the marine environment.

Depending on the type of organisation that employs the coastal engineer – client, consultant or contractor – a number of fundamental skills and specialisms are utilised:

  • Preparation of calculations
  • Sediment transport analysis
  • Hydraulic (tides, currents, waves) analysis and modelling
  • Design and development of schemes and structures plans
  • Feasibility and option analysis
  • Technical and commercial reporting
  • Preparing tender documents
  • Public consultation and presentation
  • Cost estimates and profiling
  • Programming
  • Risk management
  • Contract management
  • Project management
  • Root cause analysis and problem solving

It is unlikely that as a coastal engineer you will utilise all of these skills in the same role, and as seniority increases the non-technical aspects (such as contract management, programming etc.) may increase.

What is enjoyable about the role?

Many people are passionate about the coast, depending on it for their jobs and/or general recreational use. Your work impacts greatly on coastal communities (e.g. protecting homes and businesses from the risks of coastal flooding and erosion). Many communities in the UK have suffered severe impacts from flooding in recent years and the work of coastal engineers has been vital in safeguarding those most at risk. The benefits of your work are long lasting and your designs will be used and operated for many years into the future.

The projects you work on also make a real difference to the environment. Development at the coast can have huge impacts on coastal habitats, so effective planning and management, with the environment in mind, is crucial.

You will meet and work with a variety of people in this role, including clients, contractors, consultants and key stakeholders, all of whom contribute to the planning and delivery of coastal projects. You will also work with other engineers and scientists (e.g. structural engineers, environmental scientists), plus stakeholders such as local authorities, landowners, regulatory bodies and members of the public.

The role and projects themselves can be so variable that no day is the same. New challenges arise with each project, providing a stimulating work environment. Frequent visits to the coast are also a bonus!

What has changed in the sector in recent years?

Recently, there has been a change in the way that coastal flood and erosion risk management projects are funded. Rather than obtain all of the funding for capital schemes directly from the Government, a new approach referred to as “partnership funding” has been introduced, whereby only a proportion of the required funding is allocated depending on the achievement of target outcomes.

The intention is that some funds are secured locally to the project (i.e. from those who will benefit). A benefit of this approach is that the local community have greater influence in the final solution as ultimately local funding will align with local preferences. However, as a coastal engineer this approach creates greater uncertainty in the early stages of a project as it is difficult to rule out options early on (e.g. on financial or other grounds).

Environmental legislation relating to international conservation designations also presents many challenges to coastal engineers and those involved in the management of the coast. Rightly, much of the coast has been recognised as a valuable habitat and has thus attracted international conservation designations. However, much of our coastline is protected against coastal flooding by a “hard” line of defence.

As climate change takes effect it is accepted that sea levels will rise, squeezing the coastal habitat between the rising shoreline and the hard sea defence. In order to conserve our valuable coastal habitat, we must realign our sea defences landwards, but in many cases this is not practical due to the assets located behind (and which the sea defence is protecting). By continuing to “hold the line”, we must provide compensatory habitat for that which is being lost through coastal squeeze. As a result of this driver, an increasing number of coastal (and estuarine) managed realignment schemes are being undertaken where new coastal habitat is created.

Future career potential and projects

The Environment Agency has a continuing programme of works to improve and upgrade coastal defences in England and Wales. The dynamic nature of the coast means that change is always happening and therefore engineered intervention is often required to manage that change. As we battle with legacy of the aging hard defences constructed after the 1953 North Sea storm surge, there is a growing trend towards building “softer” structures that are more adaptable to future change. Innovations in this area are being tested within the often-aggressive coastal environment.

In parallel with on-going efforts to defend the coast, there are also an increasing number of managed realignment schemes – a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and will become more challenging to deliver.

How do I become a civil engineer in the coastal engineering and management sector?

A keen interest in the coastal environment is essential. A large number of coastal engineers have a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Civil Engineering, although other environmental or scientific backgrounds feature heavily and are often complimented with relevant postgraduate studies.

Graduates can then join coastal engineering firms to develop specialist skills and understand the sector through on the job training. Further study can also be pursued e.g. an MSc in Coastal Engineering.

Discover more about becoming a professionally qualified civil engineer with ICE

How do I return to civil engineering in this area?

Many companies offer specific training and initiatives for their employees who are returning to work after a period of absence. Engineers will also commonly choose to go back to university to do a one-year MSc course if they want to transfer to another area of civil engineering.

I don’t have a degree in civil engineering. What next?

If you don’t have a civil engineering degree, or would prefer to take a vocational route into the profession, how about becoming a civil engineering technician.

Civil engineering technicians are at the cutting edge of designing, constructing and maintaining everything from airports to sewage systems. Technicians can assist designers in the production of technical work with all activities relating to the inspection, study, design, maintenance and construction of highways.

Entering the sector as a technician is a fantastic opportunity to work alongside an experienced and dedicated highways team and a great opportunity to progress your career. ICE even offers a recognised engineering technician qualification. Many ICE members have followed this path. Today, many are now chartered engineers with ICE.

How can I learn more about the discipline of coastal engineering and management?

To help you discover more about about the role that civil engineers play in this discipline, we've collated a series of resources including recorded lectures and case studies.

Recorded lectures

  • Adapting to coastal change - Minsmere Flood Risk Management - Discover how a long term plan was developed for adaptation to coastal changes, with a focus on the Minsmere Flood Risk Management scheme, completed in 2012.
  • Coastal management - During this talk, speakers Alison Baptiste and Greg Guthrie summarise some of the best material covering the challenges of coastal management, discussing a number of international projects.
  • West Quay, Bridgwater: Collapse and reconstructions - Learn more about the collapse of the West Quay Harbour Wall in Bridgwater, and discover how the repairs resulted in a number of engineering innovations
  • Emergency work to Dawlish Sea Wall - Repairs to the South Devon Railway, a key infrastructure link damaged by flood in Feburary 2014 created enormous civil engineering challenges. Discover how those involved restored this vital rail link

Case studies

Browse all our coastal engineering knowledge