Mechanical engineering features various specializations, from robotics to manufacturing to aerospace technology. As a result, it can offer numerous opportunities in industries ranging from automotive to energy production.
Robotics, automation, and mechatronics are considered the most important knowledge and skills that engineers in the manufacturing sector should have in the next 10 years. This is according to the recent poll conducted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Engineering Technology (2021). As such, mechanical engineering careers are most relevant in these fields and are set to benefit from the ongoing shift to the fourth industrial revolution. Contrary to doomsday reports that manufacturing will be dominated by robots, advanced manufacturing would instead be enhanced by technology.
Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest career disciplines. Professionals in this field are given the responsibility to work on all stages of product development, from research to design, to manufacturing and testing. Mechanical engineering careers span across multiple industry sectors, such as energy and power, manufacturing, construction, and various medical device and equipment. Aspiring mechanical engineers can find employment opportunities in just about any industry worldwide because most sectors rely on mechanical systems and devices.
Mechanical engineering career paths may be in the area of research, design and development, and testing of mechanical and thermal devices. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), careers in this field are estimated to grow at a 4% rate per year from 2019 to 2029. Also, the median annual salary for mechanical engineers in the United States is $90,160. Most mechanical engineers work in automotive and general-purpose manufacturing, while some are employed by engineering and architectural service companies.
While a four-year bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is necessary to land an entry-level job, one may also start a career in the field by completing a two-year pre-engineering degree and land a job as a mechanical drafter or a maintenance machinist or mechanic. The two-year associate degree holder may choose to finish the remaining baccalaureate requirements and have a bachelor’s degree. Most employers look for graduates of mechanical engineering programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Programs for those who want to pursue graduate studies are also available, which are typically paths to specializations in specific fields.
This guide will provide a career development plan for mechanical engineers by discussing the different career paths that a mechanical engineering graduate may take. The essential, as well as the general skills needed to be effective in the job, are discussed, together with the possible job roles from the associate degree to bachelor’s degree graduates, and also for those with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering.
In the U.S., domestic production is accelerating as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on global supply chains. The health crisis has revealed the limitations of offshoring. And since 2020, efforts to bring back manufacturing to the U.S. are gaining ground (Morris, 2021). As the manufacturing industry gains traction, this will have a positive effect on the career development plan of mechanical engineers.
Mechanical engineering is critical to the design, manufacture, and operation of small and large mechanical systems that propel economies. Mechanical engineers use computer-aided design (CAD) in making technical plans. They carry out research and assess new products and innovations. Mechanical engineers also produce technical documents.
Mechanical engineers apply the key principles and problem-solving techniques, from design to manufacturing. Using principles of motion, energy, and source, they analyze designs to ensure safety, efficiency, and reliability. Mechanical engineering careers focus on creating technologies that meet human needs. By providing solutions to problems in healthcare, transportation, energy, world hunger, climate change, and space exploration, they are able to solve humanity’s most complex questions and problems. Anything with moving parts that need to be manufactured is the turf of the mechanical engineer, which makes this career very versatile.
In an era of rapidly advancing interdisciplinary technologies, a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering prepares students for a career that can be practiced in different industries, in the government and academic sectors. Mechanical engineers with a bachelor’s degree choose to specialize in different emerging fields while some continue on to graduate school while being involved in research and development.
Source: The Census Bureau
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for mechanical engineering jobs will be at 4% through 2029. As of May 2020, the average mechanical engineering salary in the U.S. is $90,160. The top industries that employ mechanical engineers are scientific research and development services, computer and electronic product manufacturing, and transportation equipment manufacturing. As of June 2021, there were 826,000 unfilled positions in the U.S. manufacturing industry.
Overall, the job prospects for mechanical engineers are expected to be good, especially with the latest developments in the field of nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. Those with training in the latest software tools, particularly in computational design and simulation, are in the best position to take on roles in emerging fields.
Moreover, those who know how to eliminate the need for prototypes and take projects from the conceptual phase directly to a finished product will be in high demand. Mechanical engineers who are knowledgeable in three-dimensional printing, and in creating virtual simulations, will have better job prospects in modern companies that aim to reduce product development cycles.
|Mechanical Engineering Technician||$55,397||3%|
|Associate Mechanical Engineer||$65,116||4%|
|Senior Mechanical Engineer||$96,553||4%|
|Mechanical Engineering Manager||$118,361||4%|
|Senior Applications Engineer||$103,832||4%|
|Research and Development Director||$135,518||4%|
Mechanical engineers are in charge of designing intricate machines. They lead a team that creates designs, prepares the layout, and plans for overall product development. Using CAD software, mechanical engineers produce detailed illustrations of a machine, including the specifications for each and every component that will be used in developing the product. From this stage, the mechanical engineer builds prototypes, conducts tests, and makes data comparisons with similar designs.
The work process of a mechanical engineer sounds exciting, but it is also very challenging and requires a lot of analytical thinking, and extensive knowledge of mathematical and scientific principles. The following essential and general skills are required from every mechanical engineer major who wants to have a stable and rewarding career in the field.
Proficiency in using CAD software – Engineers with a focus on design will benefit from a 3D CAD package, which is software that allows for the building of 3D models of parts and creates drawings. Popular examples include SolidWorks, Unigraphics NX, CATIA, and Autodesk Inventor. Aside from CAD software, mechanical engineers should also be proficient in using Excel, MATLAB (for complex numerical analysis), Finite Element Analysis software (for structural analysis), and Mathcad (for creating presentation-ready calculations).
Technical and Scientific – A solid knowledge of the underlying theory and first principles is crucial to the success of a mechanical engineer. To be able to solve real-world problems, mechanical engineers must have a firm grasp of fundamental principles, such as machine design principles, manufacturing processes, and Geometric Dimensioning & Tolerancing (GD&T).
Organizational Skills and Attention to Detail – making a list of specific components and the structure of each component requires keen attention to detail. Organizational skills are also very important as the mechanical engineer works with teams in accomplishing a task.
Communication – At every stage of the product development process, communication skills are crucial. Every mechanical engineer should be able to convey instructions and messages clearly to uphold efficiency and effectiveness in the entire process.
Analytical – Like most math-related careers, professionals in mechanical engineering should be able to apply knowledge in evaluating all the facets of the design process, such as reliability, size, weight, integrity, manufacturability, and power requirements. The mechanical engineer, through analytical thinking, should be able to balance all these factors and produce the optimal product design.
Critical thinking – In every career, critical thinking is a crucial skill to have, but this is most important in the field of designing machines that will affect our everyday lives. The mechanical engineer exercises critical thinking in identifying the usability and utility of machines, with the ultimate goal of advancing the way we live.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) identified five common engineering jobs of the future—robot creators, space engineers, living tissue builders, drone builders, and water extractors to address the global water shortage. These projections show that jobs will continue to evolve but foundational knowledge in the field will remain.
A four-year bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or mechanical engineering technology is typically required to land an entry-level job career in the field. Some universities and colleges offer five-year programs that allow students to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. These five-year or six-year plans integrate classroom study with practical cooperative work, from which students gain valuable on-the-job experience.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits programs in engineering and engineering technology. Getting an ABET-accredited program is necessary to become a licensed professional engineer, and most hiring managers also look for candidates that have completed mechanical engineering programs that are ABET-accredited.
You may apply for an entry-level job once you have earned an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, but taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam upon completing your degree will give you a significant advantage. While this is not required for entry-level jobs, having taken the FE exam signals to employers your future intention to secure a professional engineer (PE) license. To become a PE, you must have a passing score in both the FE exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, and at least four years of work experience. Once you become a licensed PE, you will be qualified to manage a team of engineers and large-scale projects. If this is one of your career goals in mechanical engineering, then it is best to have a plan. The majority of test-takers recommend taking the FE exam right after you have completed your mechanical engineering degree program.
Mechanical engineering technicians are involved in the installation, troubleshooting, and maintaining designs created by engineers. They typically work under the supervision of engineers or engineering technologists. Mechanical engineering technicians also review instructions and blueprints to ensure that procedures follow test specifications and meet objectives.
Median Salary: $55,397
The Mechanical engineering technologists assist the engineer in improving designs and in integrating new technology into existing designs. They are typically assigned as team leaders, instructing mechanical engineering technicians on installing systems, equipment, and structure. They also assist in testing products, such as assembling equipment for vehicle crash tests.
Median Salary: $66,377
The associate mechanical engineer uses knowledge in CAD, engineering design, and electrical systems in assisting the mechanical engineer in product design and development. Associate mechanical engineers are also tasked to perform tests on new methods and equipment.
Median Salary $65,116
Mechanical engineers research, design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal sensors and devices, including tools, engines, and machines. They also identify the cause of equipment failures, diagnose malfunctioning equipment, and formulate solutions.
Median Salary: $66,542
Biomedical engineers are typically employed by companies that produce medical equipment. They develop or improve different types of machinery, such as robotic surgery equipment, prosthetic limbs, and joint replacement.
Median Salary: $65,440
The manufacturing engineer conducts research and develops methods to design, build, and ship products. The manufacturing engineer is tasked to formulate the optimal industrial production process that will maximize the efficiency of both the workers and the machinery being used in production.
Median Salary: $65,654
Unlike other disciplines that offer certificate programs, mechanical engineering programs offer specialization certificates to bachelor’s degree graduates. Entry-level jobs in this field require at least an associate degree. A group of U.S. senators, however, is seeking to amend the Pell Grant, the financial aid for higher education, to expand eligibility to technical programs to provide broader access to those who lost employment due to the pandemic (Sutherland, 2021).
Some students, instead of acquiring certificates, go on internships as it is perceived as one of the best ways to gain real-world experience as a mechanical engineer. This is also a good way to showcase knowledge and skills to an employer, as interns get hired for full-time positions as associate engineers.
Source: The Census Bureau
For engineering faculty positions in higher education, advanced studies, especially a Ph.D., is essential. This also applies to mechanical engineers who work for companies that focus on research and development, such as those that conduct studies on nanotechnology and alternative energy. Mechanical engineers typically pursue specialization certificates such as in the field of aerospace, machine intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and computing and information science. Mechanical engineers may also earn graduate degrees in business administration while some pursue advanced studies to learn new technology. After gaining significant work experience, mechanical engineers become managers and administrators.
The senior mechanical engineer oversees the planning, design, development, and production process. The job also involves improving mechanical and electrical systems of various products to pursue efficiency.
Median salary: $96,553
With strong leadership and communication skills, the mechanical engineering manager oversees the entire mechanical engineering department’s operations. They also serve as lead engineers in project teams and manage engineering and design teams.
Median salary: $118,361
The senior applications engineer provides expert-level technical support for automation duties and system protection. They also handle engineering tasks related to machine functioning and are mainly responsible for the development and testing of applications to address product needs.
Median Salary: $103,832
The research and development (R&D) director is responsible for ensuring that the organization meets its objectives. Through conducting research and improving existing products, the R&D director manages the day-to-day operations of the R&D team.
Median salary: $135,518
The senior applications engineer is responsible for front-end engineering efforts, system build, and technology validation. This role entails providing on-site services and remote support.
Median salary: $106,163
The engineering professor, aside from conducting lectures and research, also works with students in facilitating the conduct of research, dissertations, and thesis-based papers.
Median salary: $145,120
Getting a certification will contribute to your career advancement. Certifications in the field of mechanical engineering will allow you to specialize in specific fields. Some associations such as the ASME or the Society of Value Engineering (SVE) administer certification programs.
Certificate programs are open to applicants with a bachelor’s degree. Typically, the courses in a certificate program can be credited toward a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Some of the certificate programs for mechanical engineers are:
Certifications are essential to career growth as it facilitates upskilling and reskilling. Li et al. (2021), in their research published in the Journal of Manufacturing Systems, identified the gaps in critical skills and domain knowledge essential to the digital transformation in manufacturing. Their study entitled “Data science skills and domain knowledge requirements in the manufacturing industry: A gap analysis” confirmed that “skills associated with many Industry 4.0 job positions require multidisciplinary skills and domain knowledge topics. The results indicated that many manufacturing employees lag behind data science and computer science-related skills for Industry 4.0.” The analysis conducted by Li et al. (2021) also highlighted that the manufacturing workforce needs programming skills to narrow the gap between current job requirements and workforce skills.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Mechanical engineering is a diverse field, and the skills that you will learn in a mechanical engineering degree will be helpful as a foundation in the different fields, both classic and emerging, of engineering. Your degree in mechanical engineering may also lead you to sales roles for technical products, as well as project management and management consulting jobs.
Sales Engineer – selling manufacturing equipment and medical devices requires the expertise of highly technical engineers. The mechanical engineer may take on the role of a sales engineer to ensure that products meet the requirements of customers. The sales engineer can also provide input to product management.
Management Consultant – since mechanical engineers are trained in analyzing systems and processes, they may also take on the role of a management consultant, which is focused on production processes and productivity management. Management consultants with a mechanical engineering background help organizations in designing optimal work processes and procedures.
Project Manager – mechanical engineers can be project managers in related fields in which they possess technical expertise, such as projects that involve installing heat and air conditioning systems, or in projects that are related to equipment manufacturing. Since mechanical engineers are trained to oversee product development from conceptualization to testing, project management is one of their core skills.
A degree in mechanical engineering provides a strong foundation to the scientific and mathematical pillars of different technologies, giving the mechanical engineering graduate a wide range of options in choosing a career. Specializations in various fields are also offered, which could broaden knowledge and expand skills.
The emergence of new technologies will not render one’s knowledge obsolete, but instead, it will provide unlimited opportunities to upskill and adapt to the ever-shifting industry landscape. If you think a career in the engineering field fits you, now is the perfect time to consider mechanical engineering careers as industries usher in the fourth industrial revolution.
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