The U.S. Government’s Occupational Classification (SOC) system recognizes 17 different engineering specialties, ranging from agricultural to mechanical engineering. Since it touches almost every industry, mechanical engineers can work on a wide range of projects during their careers. The key career objectives for mechanical engineers include developing their educational and professional credentials, and staying in tune with the latest technologies affecting their sector.
Mechanical engineers engage in the same product-development process that applies to computer hardware, electronics or civil engineering. However, mechanical engineering specifically focuses on designing, testing and implementing components that power machines. For example, mechanical engineers oversee the production of engines, refrigeration units, elevators and centralized heating systems. Some professionals even manufacture robots that aid other engineers in their jobs. Mechanical engineers also investigate product failures, recommend modifications, and create specifications documents for research-and-development teams.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition” states that a bachelor’s degree in engineering is standard for most entry-level engineering positions. Mechanical engineering degrees are offered at accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. and include coursework that covers a range of topics in machine design and mechanics. Undergraduate programs teach students subjects in kinetics, materials engineering, heat transfer, vibration and control, and computer aided engineering design. Mechanical engineers seeking teaching positions at the postsecondary level must have at least a master’s degree. Likewise, mechanical engineers in senior-level positions who work for government agencies or businesses typically hold a master’s degree in engineering or business administration.
Throughout the course of their educational and professional careers, mechanical engineers build business and technical skills across a wide range of areas. Developing strong analytical and problem-solving skills is important when mechanical engineers review client proposals and product requirements. Effective leadership and decision-making skills are also important since mechanical engineers evaluate projects based on feasibility, cost, implementation time and overall design. Learning how to read and analyze technical drawings, blueprints and reports are additional skills engineers learn in school and on the job. The ability to manage teams and delegate tasks is essential for mechanical engineers in leadership roles.
The first step for mechanical engineers looking to advance their careers is to obtain professional engineer (PE) certification. PE licensing requires an undergraduate degree, four years' of engineering work experience, and passing grades on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering exams (see Resources). Besides PE certification, mechanical engineers work under more experienced professionals to gain greater knowledge and manage challenging projects.
More senior positions for engineers include technical specialists and engineering supervisors. Other opportunities for advancement can lead to sales or executive management positions. In addition to acquiring work experience, mechanical engineers can seek personnel certification in mechanical engineering, or return to school for an advanced degree. The BLS projects job opportunities will be best for engineers with adequate education and extensive technical knowledge.