Becoming a Mechanical Engineer: Salary Info & Job Description

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A mechanical engineer's annual mean salary is about $87,000. Is it worth the education, training and licensing requirements? See real job descriptions and learn about employment prospects to decide if becoming a mechanical engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Mechanical Engineer

Mechanical engineers work with all aspects of tools and machinery including research, design and development phases, which allows you career options within the field. Find out the pros and cons of mechanical engineering to determine if it's the career for you.

Mechanical Engineering Career Pros
Entry-level jobs generally require only a bachelor's degree*
Mechanical engineers are needed in a wide variety of industries*
Employment available in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas*
Higher than average wages (about $87,000 annual mean wage as of May 2014)*
More than 300 colleges and universities offer degree programs in this specialty**

Mechanical Engineering Career Cons
Slower than average job growth (5% between 2012-2022)*
Maintaining a license may require continuing education*
Tuition for a top ranked school can range from $10,000-$42,000+ per year***
Project work can call for long hours to meet deadlines*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **NCES, ***U.S. News & World Report

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Mechanical engineers are essential team members when it comes to research, development, creation and testing of energy-related projects. They bring both creativity and technical expertise to projects ranging from space shuttles to space-saving washing machines, and at times they also design specialized tools used to build them. Their range of skills in engineering science, mechanics, energy-transfer and manufacturing makes them valuable as designers and problem-solvers. Three primary specialization areas for mechanical engineers are energy, manufacturing and design mechanics.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only predicted a five percent increase in job opportunities for mechanical engineers between 2012 and 2022, professionals with these skills were expected to have a variety of career options. The nature of this discipline lends itself to emerging fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and alternative energy development.

In a BLS report from May 2014, mechanical engineers earned an annual mean wage of around $87,000. The majority was employed in architectural, engineering and other related industries. Some of the highest salaries were found in Alaska with an annual mean wage of nearly $123,000.

Professional Career Requirements

To work as a professional engineer in America, you'll need a Professional Engineer (PE) license. Requirements for this license vary slightly from state to state, but one standard factor is a bachelor's degree in an engineering field from a school program that's been accredited by the ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Generally, states also require four years of practical field experience, which can be gained through means such as internships. Also, prior to taking the PE exam, many prospective engineers begin working with an FE license, which is earned by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Despite the sluggish growth projection, mechanical engineers are afforded a broad array of areas to choose from when seeking work. Employers value personality traits such as self-discipline, the ability to work well with others and creative problem solving skills. Job opportunities can be found for mechanical engineers ranging from jack-of-all-trades to overseer of highly focused minutia. The following are sample job postings that were found in March 2012:

  • An automotive systems design firm based in Michigan is looking for a design engineer to work with a team in Germany throughout the life span of the project and end product.
  • An air-to-air refueling concern in Iowa is seeking a mechanical engineer with experimentation experience to work on projects for aviation technology.
  • In California, an aerospace laboratory is seeking a mechanical engineer to work with a team that's specifically dedicated to cabling issues.

How to Stand Out

One of the common points employers look for is the ability to work well with other technical experts. Teamwork is a key factor in many job opportunities for mechanical engineers. One good way to work well with professionals who have complementary skills is to gain an understanding of what they do and how it fits with your skills.

Diversify Early

One of the steps towards earning a PE license in mechanical engineering is field experience. You can use this time to maximize your desirability to employers by working on a variety of different projects. Internship opportunities can be found in areas such as aerospace, automotive and energy.

Put Continuing Education to Work

Even if you work in a state that doesn't require continuing education, you can still take a variety of courses that will keep you up-to-date on the latest trends in your own area of expertise. Additionally, you can take courses that will give you an understanding of other engineering disciplines. The American Society of Professional Engineers, also known as ASPE, offers links to approved continuing education programs both at-cost and free.

Alternative Career Trajectories

If you enjoy the idea of mechanical engineering but the traditional path isn't a solid fit for you, other options are available with the right education and training.

Research Scientist

Applied science research and development is the bailiwick of engineers. Although entry-level support positions can be acquired with a bachelor's degree, master's degrees are preferred and to become a project lead, you may need a doctorate. Wages were the same as those of mechanical engineers, but the BLS predicted that between 2008 and 2018, research scientists could see an employment opportunity increase of 25%.

College Professor

To teach at a community or technical college, sometimes a master's degree will suffice. For traditional colleges and universities, a doctorate is generally required. The entire education process can take about ten years and competition for tenured positions can be keen. The BLS projected job growth in this field at 15% in the 2008-2018 decade. Another BLS report showed that as of May 2011, the annual mean wage for engineering professors was approximately $97,000.

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