Mechanical engineering is one of the largest engineering specialties. Engineers in this discipline work on power-producing machines including internal combustion engines, electric generators and steam and gas turbines. They also work on power-using machines such as machine tools, material-handling systems, industrial production equipment, refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment, elevators and escalators and robots used in manufacturing. Some mechanical engineers design tools that other engineers need for their work. Furthermore, mechanical engineers work in maintenance manufacturing, agriculture production or technical sales. Many mechanical engineers have the potential to become managers or administrators.
- Employment is projected to grow slower than the average for all occupations.
- A bachelor’s degree in engineering is required for most entry-level jobs, but some research positions may require a graduate degree.
- Continuing education is imperative for engineers in order to keep pace with developments in technology.
- Starting salaries are among the highest of all college graduates.
Work Environment for Mechanical Engineers
Most mechanical engineers work in laboratories, offices or industrial plants. Some may work outdoors at construction sites or oil, gas and production sites, where they oversee operations or work through onsite issues. Mechanical engineers may travel to domestic and international worksites and plants.
Typically, mechanical engineers work a 40-hour week. Sometimes, design standards or deadlines may bring added pressure to a job, resulting in engineers working longer hours.
Education, Training and Licensing
Mechanical engineers typically possess a bachelor’s degree, with some fundamental research positions requiring a graduate degree. Engineers who offer their services to the public must be licensed. Engineers must keep current with rapidly changing technology, so continuing education is imperative.
A bachelor’s degree in engineering is required for almost all entry-level engineering jobs. College graduates with a degree in a natural science or mathematics occasionally may qualify for some engineering jobs, especially in specialties that are in high demand. Most engineering degrees are granted in electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. However, engineers trained in one branch may work in related branches. For example, many aerospace engineers have training in mechanical engineering. This flexibility allows employers to meet staffing needs in new technologies and specialties in which engineers may be in short supply. It also allows engineers to shift to fields with better employment prospects or to those which more closely match their interests.
Most engineering programs include study in an engineering specialty, with additional courses in both physical and life sciences and mathematics. Several programs also incorporate courses in general engineering. Most programs include a design course, accompanied by a computer or laboratory class, or both. Often, general courses not directly related to engineering, such as those in the social sciences or humanities, also are required.
Additionally, many colleges offer 2-year or 4-year degree programs in engineering technology, beyond the standard engineering degree. These programs usually include numerous hands-on laboratory classes.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook and Earnings
Mechanical engineers held 232,660 jobs in May 2009, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most mechanical engineers held positions including design engineer, product engineer, mechanical design engineer, process engineer, equipment engineer, design maintenance engineer; chassis systems engineer systems engineer and commissioning engineer.
The BLS expects employment in this field to grow 6% from 2008 to 2018, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Some new job opportunities will be created through the effects of emerging technologies in biotechnology, materials science, and nanotechnology. Other opportunities outside of mechanical engineering will exist, as the skills acquired through earning a mechanical engineering degree can often apply to other engineering specialties.
BLS reports indicate that the median annual wage for salaried mechanical engineers was $77,020 in May 2009. The middle 50% earned between $61,220 and $96,740. While the lowest 10% had an annual income at or below $49,730 the top 10% earned upwards of $117,550 per year.