16 - 19s: A-levels, apprenticeships and other qualifications

Young engineers worked with ICE London to help promote a career in civil engineering

If you're thinking about a career in civil engineering, but aren't sure what qualifications you need, we're here to help. From apprenticeships, to A-levels and vocational qualifications, we've got advice on all the options to help you make your decision.

A career in civil engineering

There are lots of great things about being a civil engineer. It's not just a job, it's an exciting career. You'll never be bored because there's so much variety. And you get to meet and work with different kinds of people.

You could:

  • Be based in an office or on a construction site
  • Be near to home or travel all over the world
  • Work on anything from creating flood defences, producing clean energy, building new structures, boring tunnels, designing earthquake-proof homes or planning new transport systems
  • Become a director or a programme manager, lead design teams and run teams of construction workers
  • Become an expert in the design or application of a particular type of civil engineering

Civil engineering has something for everyone.

There are also many ways to become a qualified civil engineer in the future.

What's the best way for me to get into civil engineering?

Once you've done your GCSEs or intermediates you have three main options:

  1. You can take A-levels or Highers and Advanced Highers
  2. You can study for a vocational qualification
  3. You can start work as an apprentice


Taking A-levels means you'll be studying a range of subjects, so you have the option to change your mind about what you want to do next. You can also choose to stay on at your current school, or go to another school or a 6th form college, depending on what's available where you live.

Once you've successfully completed your courses, you can choose from a number of universities which offer courses in civil engineering. Find out more from the Universities and Colleges Application Service (UCAS) or individual university web sites. You should also check that your course is accredited using our accredited course search tool.

Or you might want to work and study by starting an apprenticeship – either as a higher apprentice or, if you live in Scotland, a modern apprentice.

What subjects should I choose?


If you want to become an engineer, you'll have to study maths. Engineers use maths to understand the theory of engineering and to analyse materials and structures.

Most engineering courses at university need you to have a maths A-level. You could also take further maths, if it's available as an option, but further maths is helpful not essential. (There will also be some maths in the first year of your university course.)


The second most important subject to study at this stage is probably physics. The laws of physics dictate how and why things behave the way they do. Studying physics will help you understand concepts such as energy, forces and motion, which are key to solving the problems that engineers face on a daily basis.

There are lots of other useful subjects.

Geography and geology

These subjects will build your understanding of the physical world, like the behaviour of rivers, tides and currents in the sea, and the strengths of different rocks and soils.


If you want to develop skills in using computer software, ICT will help. You'll be able to apply those skills to the programmes you'll use as a civil engineer.


Learning a modern foreign language will be useful if you want to work abroad.

Generally, it’s best to choose what you enjoy and are good at. You might also want to look at some university websites to see if they have any specific requirements or preferences.

A-levels / Highers vs vocational qualifications

If you get the right grades in your A-levels or Highers, you could go to university. Going to university will give you the best possible opportunity to work at the highest levels of the profession in the future.

However, university isn't for everyone. Your studies will be more academic and less focused on engineering at this stage. Also, your grades are more likely to be decided by exams instead of ongoing coursework or development assessments. So you'll need to think about whether this way of learning is right for you.

Meet students

Find out more about what others are doing and why they're interested in a career in civil engineering.

  • Grace Wilkinson

    Grace Wilkinson

    Grace is studying studying A-levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and History at Beaconsfield High School

    Why civil engineering?

    I think it was a combination of being a creative and mathematical person. After visiting cities like London and New York, I initially wanted to design buildings. But I decided on civil engineering because it will give me the chance to apply maths to both design and construction.

    I did summer work experience at Galliford Try (a construction company) and learned a lot. They were working on a project to renovate a basement, and building a steel-framed office in St James’s Square in London. The challenge they had was to retain a Grade 2 listed building, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, above the basement and next to the offices. It was a really great experience to see the project when it was nearly finished, especially after hearing about the problems the company had to solve.

    A-levels and beyond

    I really enjoy A-levels because I get to study subjects I’m interested in, and in more depth. This has also made me realise that I've made the right decision to do a civil engineering degree.

    I’ve applied to study an MEng in Civil Engineering at Bath, Bristol, Southampton, Loughborough and Surrey universities, hopefully to include a year in industry.

    The future

    I think I’d like to work on long-lasting and sustainable projects. The biggest thing that inspires me to become a civil engineer is the scope and importance of civil engineering. Not just how projects benefit everyday lives, but also how the engineering of today will affect the future.

    Read more
  • Austyn Lloyd

    Austyn Lloyd, A-level student

    Austyn is studying A-levels in Maths, Physics, and Design and Technology at Kingswood School, Bath

    Why civil engineering?

    When I was a child, I got interested in how structures and infrastructure work and their importance to society. I love the thought of being a civil engineer and creating things that improve people’s lives, like building a dam to provide water or a bridge to link communities.

    My school's also steeped in engineering history. During the Second World War the school was taken over by the Admiralty and they planned the floating Mulberry Harbours here. The harbours were one of the most important engineering feats of D-Day. This inspired me to make a scale model of one of the Phoenix case holds (part of the harbour) for a year 9 project.

    A-levels and beyond

    I enjoy learning things in my A-levels that I’ll be able to use at university or in a civil engineering workplace.

    I’m also a STEM ambassador and help run activities for year 9 students. The activities relate to real-world problems and structures. We design mosquito net frames and make scale models of the Heatherwick Garden Bridge. We also use some of the resources created by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

    The future

    After A-levels I’m going to study civil engineering at university, but I might take a year out to do a civil engineering apprenticeship first. Eventually I want to manage structural civil engineering projects, but I’d also like to do field work so I can get involved in lots of different activities.

    Read more

Thinking about university?

Tomorrow's Engineers have produced a really useful booklet on engineering at university which covers advice on choosing a course and getting a place. Download the booklet or order a printed copy.

Find out about courses

Check out our higher education page for more information on the courses available. You'll also find tips on what to consider when choosing the right course for you.

Explore our higher education section


If you'd like to enter the world of work and 'earn while you learn', an apprenticeship might be the route for you. Apprenticeships combine part-time study (usually at a local college) with a job, where you can get technical skills and industry knowledge. And your employer will pay for your courses.

Studying and working could also make what you're learning more relevant. This is because you can use your knowledge in the practical work you're doing. And of course, you'll be contributing to your company's projects – giving you satisfaction and making you an asset to your employer.

What type of apprenticeship is best for me?

There are different levels of apprenticeships and they can last for between two and four years.

Advanced Technical Apprenticeship

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland the most popular qualification is an Advanced Technical Apprenticeship. This apprenticeship develops your academic knowledge and on-the-job experience. So you'll study for a BTEC Level 3 (classroom-based learning) and be able to get an NVQ or ICE's own Dipoma in Civil Engineering for Technicians (based on what you learn at work).

Higher Apprenticeship

Another option, if you've already got A-levels or Highers, is a Higher Apprenticeship. This could be a level 4-6 qualification which will normally include an HND, HNC, foundation degree or bachelor's degree.

Find out more about apprenticeships in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland from the Technician Apprenticeships Consortium (TAC) and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).

Apprenticeships in Scotland

If you live in Scotland you can choose between a Modern Apprenticeship (level 2 or 3), a Technical Apprenticeship (level 4) and a Professional Apprenticeship (level 5), depending on the level you want to achieve.

Find out more about technical apprenticeships in Scotland from My World of Work.

After your apprenticeship

By the end of your apprenticeship you should be ready to start work in a permanent job. The employer who provided it will have spent time and money on your training and development and will know you well. This means they are likely to want to keep you. However, your qualification will also be recognised by other employers, so you'll have plenty of flexibility to follow the career that interests you.

Are there any disadvantages in doing an apprenticeship?

Because you're studying part-time it will take you longer to gain your qualifications. It can also be quite hard to juggle work and study at the same time, although your employer should ensure that you're not overloaded.

Meet apprentices

Find out more about what others are doing, and why an apprenticeship was right for them.

  • Fiona Keenaghan

    Fiona Keenaghan - civil engineering apprentice

    Fiona is a civil engineering apprentice. She combines working for CH2M Hill with studying for an NVQ and a BTEC Level 3 in Construction and the Built Environment (civil engineering) at South Thames College.

    Why civil engineering?

    Engineering wasn’t an obvious choice, even though I was good at maths and science at school. My older brother was a big influence, though. He’s an engineer and I loved hearing about the things he was working on. I could also understand some of the maths and design behind his work, and knew it was the career for me.

    About your apprenticeship

    I’m currently working on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. As part of my apprenticeship I spend four months with different teams assigned to the project.

    I really enjoy developing my experience and meeting new people. Lots of my friends are studying engineering degrees at uni, and are very jealous of the things I get to do. It’s also great to be paid while studying for a qualification.

    The future

    After my apprenticeship, I plan to get a degree in engineering. In 10 years’ time, I hope to be a qualified civil engineer and on my way to becoming chartered with ICE.

    I’m not sure what kind of engineering or field I want to be in, as it’s still fairly new to me. However, I know that my dream role would be to manage part of a major infrastructure project abroad.

    Read more

Already on an apprenticeship?

If you're already involved in an apprenticeship, then you could be eligible for our FREE student membership.

Becoming a member of ICE offers you a wealth of benefits, from access to free resources like our Ask Brunel service (get an answer to any civil engineering question!), to a free subscription to New Civil Engineer (NCE) magazine.

 Find out more and become a student member for FREE

Vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications are designed to prepare you for a particular career. What you learn on these courses can be directly linked to the world of work and to real-life problems and situations.

Vocational courses have also been developed by industry bodies and employers, so what you learn is relevant to the civil engineering industry and meets its needs.

You'll be able to focus on civil engineering at an earlier stage and be prepared for the world of work (much more than if you do a purely academic course). This is why vocational courses are so popular with employers. They tend to take place at further education colleges or at the new university technical colleges (UTCs), which have a more grown-up atmosphere than schools and sixth-form colleges.

One of the other big benefits of vocational courses is that assessment is usually modular and project-based. This means there is less pressure to succeed in formal exams.

Which vocational qualification is best for me?

Vocational qualifications that you may have heard of are BTECs, NVQs, SVQs (in Scotland), and City & Guilds. The three most relevant qualifications in civil engineering are:

  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment – Civil Engineering
  • BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment – Civil Engineering
  • Higher National Certificate in Civil Engineering (Scotland)

These are equivalent to A-levels, which means they meet university entrance requirements for a BEng or MEng or a foundation degree, HNC or HND.

 Find courses near you on UCAS progress

Any disadvantages to doing a vocational qualification?

Although these qualifications are equivalent to A-levels, some elite universities look less favourably towards applicants who have them. If you change your mind about what you want to do later on, a vocational qualification might also be less useful to you than a selection of A-levels.