Mechanical engineers design, develop, and manufacture tools, engines, machines, and other mechanical devices. They work on both power-producing machines, such as electrical generators, internal combustion engines, and steam and gas turbines, as well as power-using machines, such as refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment, machine tools, material handling systems, elevators and escalators, industrial production equipment, and robots used in manufacturing. Mechanical engineers also produce tools used by other engineers. One important emerging area of the field is nanotechnology, which integrates atoms and molecules to create high-performance materials and components.
Mechanical engineers use computers to perform computations, as well as model and simulate designs. For design and for turning the design into product, they often use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM). Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering occupations, with mechanical engineers working in many different industries. They may specialize in energy systems; applied mechanics; automotive design; manufacturing; materials; plant engineering and maintenance; pressure vessels and piping; and heating, refrigeration, and air-conditioning systems.
Mechanical engineers need to be able to work effectively as part of a team. They should have the ability to communicate in writing and orally. These communication skills are vital in the field of mechanical engineering because mechanical engineers interact so often with many non-engineering specialists in a wide variety of fields. Mechanical engineers should be analytical, creative, detail-oriented, and inquisitive.
In 2002, mechanical engineers earned a median annual salary of $62,880. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $41,490, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $93,430. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor's degree candidates in mechanical engineering received starting offers averaging $48,585, master's degree candidates averaged $54,565, and Ph.D. candidates averaged $69,904. The following are the median annual earnings for the industries employing the highest numbers of mechanical engineers:
- Federal government -- $72,500
- Architectural, engineering, and related services -- $65,610
- Navigational, measuring, and control instruments manufacturing -- $65,430
- Aerospace products and parts manufacturing -- $65,160 Other general purpose machinery manufacturing -- $55,850
Training and Education
A bachelor's degree is required for all entry-level mechanical engineering positions. Most programs include study in the mechanical specialty, as well as courses in mathematics and science. Many programs include a design course, along with a computer or laboratory class. Many colleges offer students the option of earning a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology, which include hands-on laboratory courses that prepare students for practical design and production work, as opposed to more theory-based jobs. While graduates of these programs may obtain the same kinds of jobs as graduates with a bachelor's degree in engineering, they are not qualified to register as professional engineers.
Faculty positions and many research and development programs in mechanical engineering require graduate training. Some engineers earn degrees in business administration to enhance their education and give themselves more career options. In fact, many high-level executives in government and business started their careers as engineers. Engineers in the United States are required to be licensed if they offer their services directly to the public. When engineers become licensed, they are designated Professional Engineers (PE). PE requirements include a degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), 4 years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a State examination. Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers, and may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff of engineers and technicians.
In 2002, mechanical engineers held about 215,000 jobs.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of mechanical engineers is expected to increase more slowly than the average. This will be due to an overall decrease in employment in manufacturing industries. However, demand for improved machinery and machine tools for more complex industrial processes will spur demand for mechanical engineers. Mechanical engineers can apply their degree to other engineering specialties, creating even more diverse job opportunities.
For more information on how to pursue this profession, please see our Computer Training and Technology Education directory.