Education and Training: Bachelor's degree or higher
Salary: Median—$66,320 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Mechanical engineers work with many kinds of machines that produce, transmit, or use power. They are concerned with mechanisms and methods that convert natural energy sources into practical uses. Mechanical engineers also design tools that other engineers need. They often work as part of a team that includes scientists who develop new theories and methods, and mechanical engineering technicians who assist engineers with some of their more routine tasks.
Mechanical engineers design and develop machines that produce energy, such as car engines and nuclear reactors. They also design and develop machines that use energy including air conditioners, power saws, elevators, and printing presses. Mechanical engineers work on various types of equipment and machines ranging from tiny mechanisms for delicate instruments to huge gears for bulldozers. The field of mechanical engineering is very broad, and some of the diverse job titles include air pollution control engineer, environmental systems engineer, manufacturing engineer, and automotive engineer.
Mechanical engineers generally specialize in one area of engineering. For example, they may work with aircraft engines or with commercial refrigeration equipment. Other fields of specialty include fluid power, instrumentation, and bioengineering. Some work in a particular industry, such as petroleum or plastics.
Within each branch of mechanical engineering there are specific jobs. Some engineers design products. They must determine the needs of the user, the physical problems of building the equipment, the cost of the equipment, and its effect on the environment. Other mechanical engineers supervise the production and installation of equipment or are in charge of its maintenance and operation. Still other mechanical engineers are involved in sales, research and development, or teaching at the university level. Mechanical engineers also work as administrators and as consultants.
Mechanical engineers are employed throughout the United States. Three-fourths of them work in manufacturing—chiefly for companies that make primary and fabricated materials, machinery, and electrical and transportation equipment. Others work for government agencies, colleges and universities, and consulting firms.
Education and Training Requirements
You generally need at least a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering to enter this field. It takes four or five years to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering. Some programs include periods of work experience along with formal classes. Many engineers go on to obtain advanced degrees in a specialized field of engineering or business administration. Engineers often continue their education throughout their careers to remain aware of new developments in their field. Most employers encourage engineers to take formal courses that help engineers to improve their job performance. Some even pay the cost of tuition for these courses. In addition, mechanical engineers read and study professional and trade journals.
Engineers whose work affects life, health, or property or who offer their services to the public must be licensed by the state in which they work. They generally need a degree from an approved engineering college, about four years of work experience as an engineer, and a passing grade on a state examination before being licensed as a professional engineer.
Getting the Job
If you are in a work-study program in college, you may be able to work full time for your employer after you graduate. Your college placement office may be able to help you find a job as a mechanical engineer. You might also look in newspapers, Internet job banks, and professional or trade journals for job openings.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Mechanical engineers generally begin as assistants to experienced engineers. As they gain experience, they can become supervisors or experts in their field. Some advance to jobs as managers or executives. Mechanical engineers with the necessary education can become research directors. Some engineers start their own consulting or manufacturing companies.
The employment outlook for mechanical engineers is good through the year 2014; they are projected to have a rate of employment growth that is equal to the average for all occupations. There is a continuing need for industrial machinery and tools. Many trained engineers will be needed to develop complex new products, and emerging technologies will create new job opportunities for mechanical engineers. In addition, mechanical engineers have skills that they can apply in other engineering specialties.
Mechanical engineers spend part of their time in clean, well-lighted office buildings. At other times they work at construction sites or in noisy factories. Working conditions vary widely since mechanical engineers are employed in so many different kinds of jobs. Their basic workweek is usually forty hours. Overtime is necessary in some jobs, especially when project deadlines must be met.
Mechanical engineers should have aptitude in science and mathematics. They should enjoy working with machinery and using it to solve problems. In addition, mechanical engineers need to be able to cooperate with and communicate their ideas to other people.
Where to Go for More Information
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings depend on the education and experience of the mechanical engineer, the location, and the kind of job. Mechanical engineers earn salaries that are close to the average salaries earned by all kinds of engineers. In 2004 the median annual earnings of mechanical engineers was $66,320. In 2005 beginning mechanical engineers with bachelor's degrees earned an average salary of $50,236 per year. Those with master's degrees started at an average salary of $59,880 per year, and those with doctoral degrees started at an average salary of $68,299 per year. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, insurance, and retirement plans.