What Mechanical Engineers Do
A mechanical engineer is a specialized engineer who helps design and manufacture new products such as tools, engines, and machines. They often specialize in areas of heat, energy, or motion, as well as how these factors influence products, and their focus may be on improving or designing products based on safety, function, efficiency, and aesthetic appeal. Many mechanical engineers are even responsible for creating the instructional manuals that accompany each product.
Examples of fields mechanical engineers work in include industrial machinery, power plants, robotic devices, data collection equipment, and biomedical equipment. Mechanical engineers may be involved in both the planning and building phases, as well as in testing products.
Depending on the field they work in, mechanical engineers may spend a considerable amount of time working with other departments to create a product or improve an existing process. Duties can include building prototypes, testing products, determining requirements and operating standards for equipment, and traveling to manufacturing sites to oversee projects.
Who would enjoy a career in Mechanical / Industrial / Production Engineering?
Mechanical engineers are naturally curious, creative, and innovative. They have a desire to improve the world around them through communication and technology. Those who do best stay up to date on the latest technology and contemplate how it benefits the people or organizations who use it.
Their passion lies in using their skills to improve on existing operations and processes for a greater good. People who excel in this career field are strong with maths, data-driven, great communicators, detail-oriented, and logical. Because engineering work requires many different teams and processes to be successful, sometimes even multiple companies or organizations, mechanical engineers must also be comfortable with teamwork and project management, particularly at the higher levels of a role.
Who mightn't like the career?
Because mechanical engineers must often work with a wide variety of clients, their work can greatly vary from one day to the next. Those who like a more structured schedule may get frustrated with the ever-changing demands of an engineering career.
There may also be intense deadlines, with ongoing requests from clients to make last-minute changes to projects or designs. This requires a flexible attitude and a knack for switching gears quickly from one project to the next while maintaining quality. Mechanical engineers may also find themselves working longer hours than they anticipated to meet these deadlines, causing a disruption in their work-life balance.
The creative aspects of the job require intense mental energies and commitment. Those who aren’t comfortable taking the lead or being solely responsible for large projects may balk at the duties required of mechanical engineers.
Mechanical engineers are required to hold a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering or an advanced degree of the same major. Students focus on courses in math, design, physics, nanotechnology, biomedicine, engineering, economics, and more. Ideal candidates graduate from ABET-accredited programs. ABET, short for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, accredits engineering programs at colleges and universities in 30 countries.
Accreditation is usually necessary to obtain a Professional Engineering (PE) license, which is required in the United States to sell services to the public, though licensing requirements vary state. In Canada, the accreditation body is the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), and individuals must be licensed at a provincial level. In the UK, the title of “engineer” is not protected, but individuals who are serious about the profession usually become a chartered engineer, which is a protected title. Australian engineers may become accredited by a number of organizations, including the Association of Professional Engineers Australia (APEA) and National Engineering Register (NER).
Because many engineering programs include or require a technical internship, graduates are prepared to interview for entry-level engineering positions after completing their coursework. Professional licenses are not required for entry-level jobs, so relevant work experience and letters of reference will prove advantageous in interviews. Applicants must be ready to perform technical skills and speak to what they will bring to the desired company.
- Preparing for a Technical Interview
- Interviewing for an engineering job with a governmental organization
- How to Demonstrate Your Value to a Potential Employer
Moving into Mechanical / Industrial / Production Engineering from another career
Because mechanical engineering is such a broad industry, many employers in various specialized professions may find themselves drawn to general mechanical engineering to expand their skill set and be more marketable to employers. For example, a specialized degree in nanotechnology or computer programming is valuable to specific markets, but not all. Making the switch to the broader mechanical engineering path can open up the job market and still make use of special skills.
Leadership careers can also make the switch to mechanical engineering with the right education and excel, being that management experience bodes well for leading team projects. However, those hoping to move past entry-level positions who do not have an engineering background will still need to undergo the process of becoming licensed. For more information, see “Why Mechanical Engineering is a Worthwhile Career” and “What You Need to Know About Entry-Level Mechanical Engineering Jobs
Role: Because mechanical engineering relies heavily on technical application of learned skills, engineering curriculum typically includes an internship during or after graduation to obtain field experience. Accredited engineering programs may help place prospective graduates into organizations in their desired industry, which can then ensure future employment.
Role: Mechanical engineers tend to work in offices and spend their time developing, designing, building, and/or testing new equipment and devices for personal or company use. Engineers may also find themselves spending time in labs to build or test their products. They solve customer needs by designing new products and are then responsible for ensuring products are equipped to all company, state, and national safety standards. Heavy research may be involved to plan for these innovations.
Depending on the project, mechanical engineers may work independently or as part of a team to complete it. Working on a team requires leadership skills and effective communication both with peers and prospective clients to ensure efficient progress toward deadlines.
Role: Experienced mechanical engineers may get promoted to management positions in which they are responsible for overseeing the kind of projects they previously worked on. This includes planning for new products, proposing and approving budgets, hiring and supervising staff, and reviewing work of team members for accuracy and standards. As with other engineering careers, the work at the management level can be more focused on coordinating and managing other engineers, rather than undertaking the engineering work.
Mechanical engineers usually report to managers or work with clients out of an office, but travel opportunities may arise when visiting worksites is necessary. Travel is usually local. It’s also worth noting that, due to licensing requirements, relocation can be difficult for engineers. However, many jurisdictions have fast-track options for those who were accredited or licensed in another jurisdiction.
Entry-Level Engineer (0-5 years): Data from PayScale indicates that starting salaries average USD$69,000 in the United States, £31,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$64,000 in Canada, and AU$72,000 in Australia.
Mid-Career Engineer (5-10 years): USD$78,000, £33,000, CAD$73,000, and AU$84,000.
Experienced Engineer (10-20 years): USD$89,000, £34,000, CAD$84,000, and AU$100,000.
Late-Career Engineer (20+ years): USD$100,000, £32,000, CAD$97,000, and AU$105,000.
Engineering Manager: USD$113,000, £50,986. (CA and AU salaries not available)
Bonuses and commission may apply in certain positions.
Why Mechanical Engineers move on
People often leave the field after years of experience because they no longer wish to work long hours, they feel unchallenged by the work, or because the responsibilities of higher positions don’t appeal to them. For more information, see “Why I Gave Up My Engineering Career.”
The Engineering Daily discussion “Have you lost your job? How are you surviving?” also explores difficulties engineers face in finding lucrative employment due to a market flooded with engineers and economic downturns.
Mechanical engineers have a wide array of career choices within the engineering field if they choose to hone in on a specialty. Employees often transition into specialized engineering careers within heating/cooling, aeronautics, or medical fields. However, for those who desire to leave engineering entirely, options remain. Though further education may be required, engineers who desire a different work environment or schedule can find careers in other areas of design, computers, business, and many others with their extensive skill set; problem-solving, creative and logical thinking, leadership, and teamwork are just some of the skills that make transitioning out of an engineering career a definite possibility.