On a daily basis, everyone encounters the work of engineers. Whether commuting to work, playing games on a computer, heating up leftovers in a microwave or sorting recycling, engineers have a hand in our day-to-day activities, as their scientific knowledge can be applied in a myriad of ways. This guide explores what engineers do, the types of engineering jobs that are available, the skills needed to be a successful engineer, and the salaries that these professionals can command.
Students who are interested in engineering degrees and careers have a wealth of options to choose from. Prospective professionals can follow a degree and career path based on the science that piques their interest, the types of products they’re interested in working with, or the materials they are knowledgeable about. Below are examples of the types of jobs that engineers can pursue, along with educational requirements as described by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This broad subsection of engineering allows professionals to design, develop and build a wide variety of products, including engines, machines and tools. This job entails duties such as using computer software to create product designs; testing design prototypes to determine whether or not they work the way they should; and analyzing test results to adjust the design specifications as necessary. Some projects also require installation, so mechanical engineers sometimes have the opportunity to really get their hands dirty by ensuring that certain products, such as water or heating systems, are installed and maintained properly.
The electrical systems used in products are designed, developed and tested by electrical engineers. These workers find the best ways to use electrical power in numerous products. To do this, they use calculations to develop and construct products; develop specifications to construct, manufacture and install a product; and test products to ensure they meet the production criteria. Electrical engineers may also investigate complaints about a product, evaluating why something went wrong and how it can be fixed.
When there’s an environmental disaster, such as an oil spill, a community turns to these kinds of engineers for help. Or when a city needs to improve its recycling program, it counts on their recommendations. That’s because environmental engineers use their knowledge of engineering, as well as sciences like chemistry and biology, to solve environmental problems and find solutions to issues that affect the environment.
Some of the specific job duties of environmental engineers include conducting environmental investigations and preparing detailed reports, creating environmental protection plans, and inspecting industrial facilities to ensure they comply with applicable laws.
These engineers develop ways to leverage nuclear energy and radiation. Examples of their work can be found in medical devices used to treat and diagnose patients, as well as power sources found in airplanes and ships. Some of the job duties of nuclear engineers include designing and developing equipment, such as reactor cores and radiation shielding; investigating nuclear accidents to find the cause and create strategies for prevention; creating guidelines for nuclear waste handling and disposal; and monitoring the operations of nuclear power plants to ensure they are run lawfully.
Whether they are working with ceramics, metals, plastics or glass, these engineers use materials to create products used in everyday life — which is accomplished by developing, testing and processing materials to find the right ones for a specific product. The job duties of materials engineers include creating budgets for projects and working to ensure they are adhered to; investigating product failures and finding solutions to the problems; and supervising the work of technicians and technologists.
The work of industrial engineers is primarily driven by efficiency. To that end, they use their engineering knowledge to manage materials, devices, information and even people in order to create products or provide services. This job entails reviewing processes to uncover wastefulness, creating efficient ways to manufacture products, analyzing production problems and creating quality control measures, and working with clients to streamline production schedules.
Computer hardware engineers contribute to advancements in computer technologies by testing and designing systems and components. Their work includes creating blueprints of computer hardware, testing completed hardware designs and making necessary changes, and collaborating with software developers to adjust existing hardware products so they are compatible with the latest software updates.
While engineering education provides the foundation needed to land a job, there are certain skills engineers also need in order to deal with the day-to-day realities of working in the field. The following are some examples of these skills:
Engineers need to juggle all of the elements of a project from start to finish, ensuring that each step of the process is completed on time. Strong project management skills are important when bringing a product from concept to fruition.
No engineer is an island. To successfully complete a project, it takes a team of people each focusing on their piece of the process. Engineers must be able to work effectively in a team environment, which entails moving forward on their portion of a project while coordinating with members of their production team.
Engineers solve problems, so critical thinking skills are imperative. They must be able to analyze a problem, visualize a solution and make it a reality. And when something goes awry along the way — or a finished product does not perform the way it should — engineers must have the analytical skills to identify what went wrong and develop a new course of action.
Products can have many intricate parts, so when it comes to bringing them all together in a way that works, the devil can be in the details. Engineers must be detail oriented in order to plan and construct a project — keeping in mind that if one element is out of place, the product may not be operational.
Written and verbal communication skills are necessary for engineers. Not only do they need to be able to effectively communicate with members of their own team, but also they often communicate with the companies they produce products for, or even the end users. This can involve writing reports, speaking in meetings and making presentations. Strong listening skills are also important when making plans for a project or trying to gain an understanding of a problem.
In some areas of the engineering field, such as civil and mechanical, employees are required to obtain a license to work as a professional engineer, or PE. These licenses are obtained from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) after an engineer completes a degree from an approved program and passes the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Examination. In some states, engineering licensees undergo a process where they first earn an engineer-in-training credential and then obtain a certain amount of work experience before being granted a full license.
In addition to licenses, engineers can also receive professional certifications. Although they are not mandatory, earning these credentials demonstrates an engineer’s dedication to professional development, which can be attractive to potential employers. The following are examples of such certifications.
Can be obtained by software engineers to demonstrate their expertise in software design using the Java platform.
Allow engineers to demonstrate their proficiency with this kind of software.
For systems engineers who want to enhance their technological and leadership skills.
For engineers with expertise in Microsoft Windows NT operating system.
Can be earned by engineers who work for petroleum and mining companies.
Tools and technologies are a necessary part of the engineering profession. The following are examples of the types of technologies and tools that are used by engineers:
Engineers tend to make healthy salaries that often far exceed the national average. The following table outlines the highest paid engineering jobs, based on data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The job outlook for the engineering field varies depending on the specific subsector. The table below outlines growth predictions for specific engineering jobs, as well as the states that have the most employment opportunities.
Aging infrastructure will require these professionals to rebuild and repair bridges, roads and levees. Also, older water systems will need to be replaced to accommodate the drinking water needs of a growing population.
The decline of the manufacturing sector may slow job growth.
Growth will be driven by state and local governments’ efforts to update water systems and clean contaminated sites.
These engineers can work in several different industries, so growth may vary depending on their specific sector. Those who work in companies involved in oil and gas extraction will experience faster than average growth, for example.
Power plants will need their safety systems upgraded. Also, the nuclear medicine field is experiencing growth.
Those who are interested in, or members of, the engineering profession can also explore careers related to engineering. The following are examples of related careers, along with information about their salaries, education requirements and growth potential.