CAD Designer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Learn about a computer-aided designer's job duties, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a career in computer-aided design (CAD).
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A CAD Designer Career: Pros and Cons

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) designers use computer programs to create designs, drawings and other renderings for products ranging from medical equipment and smart phones to buildings, furniture and cars. Find out the pros and cons of this career to see if it is something you'd like to pursue.

Pros of a CAD Designer Career
Higher-than-average salary ($67,000 in 2014)*
Jobs available in manufacturing, construction, electronics and medical industries, among other areas*
Opportunity to use creativity on the job*
Opportunities for advancement, especially in larger companies*

Cons of a CAD Designer Career
Strong competition for jobs due to lower-than-average job growth (4% projected from 2012-2022)*
Must constantly solicit new projects if self-employed*
Frequent deadlines and irregular hours are not uncommon*
Possible eye, back, hand and wrist problems from computer-based work*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

CAD designers combine concepts in engineering, art and business to create the look, feel and function of a wide variety of products. They consider how these products will be used and handled by the user. As a CAD designer, you might take part in the research involved in determining a product's usefulness and functions, after which you'd use CAD software to create virtual models of your ideas to present to a client or your employer. After the designs are evaluated for safety, function, appearance and performance, they are approved for production or manufacturing.

Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for commercial and industrial designers was about $67,000 in 2014. Workers in the bottom tenth percentile earned about $37,000 a year, while those in the top tenth percentile earned upwards of $100,000. The mean annual salary for designers in the architectural and engineering fields was over $70,000 a year.

You may want to work as an industrial designer doing support activities for mining if you're interested in one of the top paying industries in this field. These designers earned an annual mean wage of about $92,000 in 2014. The state of Michigan was the top-paying state for industrial and commercial designers, with an annual wage of nearly $76,000, according to the BLS. Other top-paying states were Massachusetts ($75,000), New York ($73,000), South Carolina ($72,000) and Nevada, ($72,000).

Specialization by Industry

Jobs for computer-aided designers exist in several different industries, and many designers develop a specialty. You could create designs for toys, home appliances, buildings, tools, automobiles, mobile phones, aircraft parts, recreation equipment or a host of other products.

Job Prospects

Though competition for jobs in this field is keen, the BLS predicts demand for new products and technology to increase the need for designers. The BLS reported that jobs for industrial designers were expected to increase by 4% between 2012 and 2022, or about 1,700 jobs.

Education and Training Requirements

Undergraduate Degree Programs

The BLS noted that industrial and commercial designer positions typically required a bachelor's degree in industrial design, architecture or engineering. Most design degree programs include courses in graphic design, computer-aided design, sketching, drawing, 3D rendering and related software programs. Math and physical science courses are also helpful for this career.

Some job ads state that an associate degree is sufficient. Two-year programs in design and drafting provide instruction in CAD software, along with courses in blueprint reading, architectural illustration, mechanical drafting, solid modeling and other areas. No matter which level of schooling you attain, an important part of your degree program should be building a portfolio of work that showcases your top design projects so that you have something to show prospective employers.

Other Skills

Along with a degree, you'll need to possess strong creative skills in order to combine form, color, detail and balance with product specifications to create functional and pleasing designs. You'll need to be comfortable working with various computer design software programs and possess sketching and drawing skills, which are useful during meetings and consultations with clients and co-workers.

Because of the collaborative nature of the job, you'll need strong interpersonal skills to share ideas and the ability to adapt to changes. Problem-solving, time management and project management skills are also important.

Job Postings from Real Employers

CAD designers are needed in many different industries that create and design products and parts. The following job postings from March 2012 are from real employers and represent a sample of job opportunities available for those with computer-aided design skills.

  • A branch of the U.S. military in Pennsylvania was advertising for an engineering technician specialist with CAD skills to analyze and recommend design changes to engineering drawings related to the production of combat vehicles, complex missile components and other equipment. The position requirements included a year of specialized experience in mechanical engineering and knowledge of CAD processes and methods. 1-2 years of graduate education, a graduate degree or an internship in this field may substitute for experience.
  • An engineering company in Virginia sought a CAD designer to prepare final drawings, exhibits, figures and other highly complex material from designs. The job required an associate's degree or a certificate in drafting and at least three years of relevant experience.
  • A manufacturing company in New York was looking for a CAD designer to create about 300 seasonal patterns that can be woven into fabric. A bachelor's degree or equivalent experience was required.

How Can I Stand Out?

Gain Skills and Experience

To set yourself apart from other job applicants, you may want to develop complementary software skills. Employers often require candidates to be proficient in the Microsoft Office Suite, especially Word and Excel. Many people learn these programs independently, though you can also take free online tutorials offered by the software company.

Because many employers require designers with some experience, you might consider undertaking an internship while in college. Internships can be found through your school or through job boards. You'll gain on-the-job experience in design and may also come away with a larger and more diverse portfolio of work.

Consider an Advanced Degree

The BLS noted that a growing number of CAD designers pursue master's degrees in business administration or a similar field in order to gain business skills and prepare for management roles. Such programs provide education in sales, quality assurance, strategic planning, marketing, accounting and purchasing.

Be Active in Professional Associations

Joining a professional association in your field can provide opportunities for additional learning. The Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture is a non-profit organization that promotes the research and development of computer-aided design. Membership is open to professionals, educators and students. Annual conferences allow you to network and learn from industry professionals. You'll also have access to thousands of research papers from professionals and an online e-mail directory of members.

Membership in the Industrial Designers Society of America, the oldest society for product design and related fields, also offers several levels of membership. Benefits include networking opportunities, conferences, awards and the opportunity to contribute through articles, speaking or other activities.

The American Digital Design Organization (ADDA) offers certification to designers, design technicians and other graphic professionals. The ADDA Drafter Certification credential allows individuals to demonstrate their knowledge of industry practices and standards.

Other Careers to Consider

Cartographer

If the strong competition for CAD designers is giving you second thoughts, you might consider a career as a cartographer, a profession expected to see high job growth (22%) from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. Cartographers use computer software and geographic information systems (GIS) data to create maps and charts of the Earth's surface. These maps contain layers of useful data needed for legal, political and other purposes. You'll need a bachelor's degree in cartography, geography or a related area; some states require licensure as a surveyor. The average pay for cartographers in 2011 was around $60,000, according to the BLS.

Graphic Designer

If you're interested in using your artistic skills and graphic design software to create appealing images for magazines, brochures, advertisements, websites and other projects, consider a career as a graphic designer. You'll typically need a bachelor's degree in graphic design or equivalent technical training. In 2011, the BLS found that the average pay for graphic designers was almost $49,000 and estimated that jobs would increase about as fast as the average between 2010 and 2020.

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