Career Overview: Engineering

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Engineers solve problems: how to build the strongest possible bridge using the materials available; how to set up layout and work processes of the factory floor to maximize output and efficiency; how to create the most efficient, bug-free software possible to instruct a computer to process certain tasks; how to create an airplane that flies farther using less fuel; and so on.

Engineers helped create the car you drive, as well as the processes and machinery that extracted the petroleum that fuels it from far beneath the Earth's surface. They helped create the highways and bridges on and over which you drive that car on the way to work. They helped create the building in which you work, the HVAC system that keeps that building warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and the power grid that delivers energy to that building. They helped create the innards of the computer on your desk, and the network to which your computer is attached. And engineers may well have helped create the processes your employer uses to go about its business.

As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it, "Engineers apply the theories and principles of science and mathematics to research and develop economical solutions to technical problems." Typically, engineers specialize in one particular area of engineering; engineering specialties include aerospace, agricultural, architectural, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer hardware, computer software, electrical, environmental, geological, industrial, marine, materials, mechanical, nuclear, and petroleum engineering.

There are about a million and a half engineers in the United States. Among the largest engineering specialties, in terms of the number of engineers practicing them, are computer software engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial engineering, including health and safety engineering.

What You'll Do
Engineers apply mathematic, scientific, technical, and design knowledge to address problems and tasks faced by businesses and governments. Engineering may involve developing new processes, such as environmentally sound methods of waste disposal, or designing new products, such as a lighter, stronger, and more flexible plastic.

A fundamental part of engineering is the practical application of specialized scientific knowledge. For example, an engineer might apply his or her understanding of how fluids react in high-pressure, low-gravity environments to design a hydraulic system for an earth-orbiting satellite. Whether the end result is a product or a process, engineers need to consider safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness. If something they've created isn't safe, reliable, or cost-effective, their product isn't going to fly in the marketplace.

Engineering is a career based on logical, systematic problem solving, generally in high-tech, industrial, or scientific fields. Because there are an infinite variety of problems to be solved in each of those fields, engineers have developed a number of specialties. They may specialize in electrical networks, machines or mechanical systems, chemical compounds, airplanes or spacecraft, or software or computer systems. The rapid expansion of computer and networking technologies has created vast new opportunities for engineers in computer-related fields, who include software engineers (also known as programmers), Web developers, and specialists in information networks.

Engineers are often the crucial link between goals and reality. Once a company or government agency decides that it needs a certain product or process, the next step is for an engineer or team of engineers to create it as efficiently as possible within a budget. Engineers can have a hand in all phases of development, from idea conception, design and development, implementation, testing, production, and maintenance to sales and customer support.

Manufacturers employ engineers to design and develop products such as consumer and industrial electronics, fabricated metals, machine tools, chemical compounds, transportation equipment, aircraft, communication equipment, and space vehicles. Engineers also develop the production processes necessary to create those products, from designing the machinery to designing the factories where the machinery is operated.

Besides manufacturing, some engineers test and inspect products and structures to increase cost-effectiveness or safety. Such engineers typically engage in more service-oriented careers, often working for firms that contract their services to other businesses or government agencies. For instance, engineers may be hired to test the stress limits of metal used in automobiles, evaluate the structural integrity of buildings, or develop a cheaper process for producing corrective lenses.

Who Does Well
Engineers need to be able to work in teams. In school, engineers learn to attack a problem by breaking it down into small, independent parts, sometimes called modules. Breaking problems down in this systematic way helps divide the work among team members. An experienced engineer usually serves as supervisor, ensuring that all team members coordinate their parts and communicate effectively to keep the project running smoothly, while less experienced engineers typically follow the supervisor's directions as part of the team.

The most successful engineers have a balance of creative and scientific skills and can master both established techniques and innovate new ones. Discipline, patience, and perseverance are also important qualities in an engineer-some problems may take years or even a whole career to solve. The ability to communicate with others is also a key skill, as engineers need to communicate effectively within their teams and with others who will apply their work. Communication is also important in order to help engineers understand the needs of those who will use the finished products of their work-folks who usually aren't engineers.


Most companies require job applicants to have a bachelor's in an engineering field from an institution accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), though sometimes graduates with related degrees may qualify. A degree in math or physics-or better yet, applied math, applied physics, or computer science-is sometimes sufficient to get an entry-level position. Engineering programs vary from school to school, but generally offer one year of core engineering courses, followed by three years of classes in a specific major. Some students need five or more years to complete all the requirements, which is not unusual.

If the engineer's work affects life, health, or property, or if he or she contracts to serve the public, state laws require the engineer to obtain a state license. The laws vary from state to state, but the process typically requires an engineering degree from an ABET-accredited school, and a certain number of years of experience (usually four). The engineer also needs to pass two exams prepared by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES): the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examination.

Quality assurance and quality testing engineers may be required to pass specialized training and certification programs and become Certified Quality Engineers or Certified Software Quality Engineers.

Beyond these requirements, aspiring engineers should be interested in math and science, enjoy complex problem solving, and have good organizational and communication skills, both oral and written. Engineering problems often require a team effort, so a good engineer needs to be able to work within a team-whether as a member or a leader.

Job Outlook

Engineering jobs in general are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to increase at about the same rate as the growth in jobs overall between 2004 and 2014. However, the projected growth rates for certain engineering specialties during that time vary widely:

Computer software, biomedical, and environmental engineering job opportunities are all projected to grow at a rate far in excess of the growth of jobs overall.

Job opportunities in agricultural, chemical, civil, computer hardware, electrical, electronics, health and safety, industrial, materials, and mechanical engineering are all expected to grow at a rate faster than the overall jobs growth rate.

Job opportunities in aerospace, marine, and nuclear engineering are expected to grow at a slower rate than overall jobs growth.

Job opportunities in nuclear and petroleum engineering are expected to decline.

Note that even in engineering specialties with low projected employment growth rates, there should be ample opportunities for fledgling engineers in coming years. Among other factors, retirements among baby boomers will lead to opportunities in the larger engineering specialties.

One key for engineers is ongoing education. Materials and technologies are changing so rapidly these days that only those who are up to speed on the latest trends in their fields will be assured of strong job prospects.

Career Tracks

Professional societies recognize more than 25 engineering specialties, and new ones continue to develop with advances in science and technology. Engineers tend to refer to themselves by qualifying the type of engineering work they do, such as "mechanical engineer" or "civil engineer." You might think of these specialties as families, since many of them break down into narrower subspecialties. Choosing one specialty doesn't preclude you from working in another field; crossing over is fairly common.

Following are descriptions of some of the most common engineering specialties to give you an idea of specific career opportunities.

Electrical Engineers
Electrical engineering is the biggest engineering field, and includes such areas as power systems and transmission, circuitry and communication, and several subspecialties including industrial robots, telephone switching systems, microprocessors, and digital broadcasting. Electrical engineers might design computer chips, circuit boards for audio equipment, broadcast systems for cellular phones and television, or power stations and citywide electric-utility services.

Software, Web, and ITEngineering
Software engineers create programs for use on various computer platforms such as Windows, Macintosh, or Unix. Web engineers are essentially programmers who develop applications specifically for the Web. Specialists in information technology (IT) focus on creating and maintaining networks of information, often within companies or government agencies. IT engineers make sure that networks stay secure and run smoothly, both within an office (known as a local area network, or LAN) and between remote locations (known as a wide area network, or WAN).

Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineers create, develop, and run machines, manufacturing systems, engines, energy systems, pipelines, robots, refrigeration equipment, and other mechanical tools. Mechanical engineers apply their knowledge of mechanical systems to create new machines and improve old ones. They may, for instance, develop a machine that makes it easier to harvest crops or manufacture semiconductors. Or they may create a new way to design cars. In improving old machines and creating new ones, mechanical engineers need to make sure the machines run safely and efficiently.

Civil Engineering
Civil engineers build or improve roads and bridges, dams and irrigation systems, water treatment processes, erosion control techniques, and public transportation systems. Civil engineers also test buildings to make sure they are structurally sound, particularly large institutional ones. The term "civil engineering" essentially indicates projects related to public works; the work itself may involve principles of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or other specialized fields. While most civil engineering jobs are with government agencies, some are with service firms that contract with governments and businesses.

Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineers design and evaluate industrial systems such as assembly lines or automated factories to pinpoint areas for improvements in cost, quality, or safety. Industrial engineers are like high-level managers; they may coordinate and direct the efforts of a team of mechanical and electrical engineers, for instance, and as a result often end up in management positions within manufacturing industries.

Aerospace Engineering
As the name implies, aerospace engineers design and develop aircraft and spacecraft, including airplanes, missile systems, earth-orbiting satellites, and the components that make them work. Typical job opportunities for aerospace engineers exist with aircraft manufacturers, satellite communication companies and defense contractors.

Materials Engineering
Materials engineers develop new ceramics, metals, polymers, resins, glass, and other materials, and study their flexibility, strength, heat resistance, and density under various conditions. They specialize in knowing the properties of various materials and how to create new ones to meet various business and manufacturing needs. For instance, a materials engineer might develop a stronger metal to use in highway barriers, or a shatter-resistant glass to use in beer bottles.

Chemical Engineering
Generally speaking, chemical engineers are experts in substances and how they react to one another or to various technical processes. Based on their deep understanding of molecules and their interactions, chemical engineers design manufacturing processes for products such as detergents, gasoline, plastics, and synthetic materials.

Electronics Design Engineers
Electronics design engineers design the electrical circuits at the heart of all electronics hardware. Such circuits range from the small circuits used in automatic coffeemakers to the relatively large integrated circuits (or chips) found in computers. Design engineers work on integrated circuits (also called microelectronic devices) or traditional (or macroelectronic) circuits, in which components are mounted on circuit boards. In addition, some design engineers work primarily with digital circuits, while others specialize in analog circuits. Among the many subspecialties further differentiating the field is RF engineering, which involves circuitry that transmits and receives radio frequencies.

Computer Hardware Engineer
Process engineers develop faster, smaller, and more powerful integrated circuits in their never-ending quest to make components that will do more while taking up less space. Unlike the components of a normal electrical circuit, the electronic parts that make up an integrated circuit are so small that they are not created individually and then interconnected. Rather, the entire circuit and all necessary connections are created at once. Process engineers implement all aspects of this process. Through the use of chemicals and light-sensitive materials, many identical copies of the circuits are etched onto a wafer (a disk usually made of silicon). The wafer is then sliced up, and the individual circuits are packaged before being inserted into a larger circuit such as the motherboard of a computer.

Quality Assuranceand TestEngineers
Quality assurance engineers ensure that a company's manufacturing facilities operate smoothly and that the number of defective parts is kept to an acceptable level. They routinely design methods to monitor production lines, and work closely with other engineers when products are not being manufactured to specification. QA engineers also work closely with new products to determine acceptable specifications.

Test engineers, like QA engineers, help set up test equipment that is used to determine whether products are being manufactured correctly. When a product is deemed faulty, either on the production floor or after it's been returned by a customer, a test engineer may be called in to figure out exactly why the equipment failed-a time-consuming process that can uncover fundamental flaws in a company's production techniques. Test engineers also help create prototype products to make sure a finished product will meet design engineers' specifications.

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