This Is What Mechanical Engineers Do

An engineer stands outside while holding blueprints


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k

If you excel in math and problem-solving, have a strong sense of creativity, and are on the lookout for a job with good job growth prospects, mechanical engineering may be the field worth considering. Mechanical engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines, emerging during the 18th century as a field in Europe though the basic application can be traced back to medieval societies. In the present, the career houses numerous areas of research and subdisciplines, so if you have an interest or the necessary skills, there may be a job for you in mechanical engineering.

What is a mechanical engineer?

A mechanical engineer is a person who studies problems to determine how a mechanical device may be used to solve them by using physics, engineering mathematics, engineering, and materials science. Mechanical engineers design, create, test, and maintain devices such as tools, engines, and machines in industries that manufacture machinery. They are responsible for analyzing and solving problems in mechanical and thermal devices, often by utilizing various forms of computer technology. They also design prototypes, test them, and make changes to their projects as they find it necessary. 

In 2015, approximately 1.6 million engineers were employed in the United States, and mechanical engineers made up the largest discipline with 278, 430 workers, or 17 percent of those in the engineering field total.

Where do mechanical engineers work?

These professionals often spend most of their time working in offices of companies that manufacture machinery where they have access to computers. Though most of their days are spent working at a desk, they also visit worksites from time to time to address issues. For example, if a machine at an automotive plant stops functioning properly, a mechanical engineer may go to the plant to troubleshoot the issue. 

What types of projects are typical for this career?

Mechanical engineers work in industries that manufactures machinery or car parts. Manufacturing relating to machinery transportation equipment, and computer and electronic products are also popular projects. Some mechanical engineers perform scientific research and development services. They may design and oversee the manufacturing process for medical devices, batteries, generators, and heating systems.

Of the 288,800 jobs held by mechanical engineers in 2016, the highest percent found employment working in architectural forms of engineering. Architectural engineers work with architects to design and construct buildings.

Robotic engineers design and build robots, and their projects may include designing how the robot will use sensors and how the sensors will fit into the overall design.

Engineers who create and maintain heating and cooling systems may work on projects for transportation vehicles and buildings, and engineers who work with automotives test and improve car features and aerodynamics. 

Salary expectations

In May 2017, the average salary received by mechanical engineers was $85,880 per year, or $41.29 per hour. Most work full time, and 3 in 10 mechanical engineers reported that they worked over 40 hours per week. 

Mechanical engineers who worked in industries that provided scientific research and development services earned the highest annual wages at a median amount of $98,530 followed by those who manufactured computer and electronic products and earned an average of $91,440. The lowest earning industry was machinery manufacturing, in which workers earned a median salary of $77,400.

The city where mechanical engineers earn the most money on average is Anchorage, Alaska, where workers earn an average of $145,900. The second most lucrative city is Tuscaloosa, Alabama with $128,150 followed by Taunton, Massachusetts with $125,300, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
Though the aforementioned cities offer the highest salaries, the South has been named the best overall region for engineers to work, according to NerdWallet, due to the size of the industry in southern states and the mean salary compared to average rent costs. Huntsville, Alabama was ranked No. 1 thanks to the high number of engineer positions, high salary offerings, and low cost of rent. 

Required qualifications

In most cases, mechanical engineers hold a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology or mechanical engineering such as a Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering. Mathematics, physical sciences, engineering, and design courses are often required in programs. To become a mechanical engineer, students must typically hold a degree from a school that holds Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation. In addition to academic coursework, most programs also require students to complete community projects to showcase their practical problem-solving skills.

Earning the degree is the minimum qualification to begin working as an Engineering Intern (EI) or Engineer-in-Training (EIT) which does not require licensure. After working as an EI or EIT for at least 4 years, engineers may become Professional Engineers by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE) and passing the Professional Engineering (PE) exam to gain licensure and oversee the projects of other engineers and work directly for the public. 

Because most companies use computer-aided engineering (CAE) programs, proficiency using computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) are a two essential tools for mechanical engineers to master before working in the field.  

Growth opportunities

Another route that mechanical engineers may take is to secure a career in academia. To pursue this course of action, engineers may earn a Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering. Other advanced degree options include the Master of Engineering, Master of Engineering Management, or the Master of Technology. In addition to engineering, they may hold a degree in business administration to enhance their project management abilities. 

After gaining sufficient work experience—typically at least five years—an engineer may become an engineering manager. Managers produce detailed project plans and divide tasks between workers to ensure the project is completed. Their duties also include supervising employees throughout the process, hiring team members, and preparing schedules and budgets.

Next Steps

To see a list of schools that hold ABET accreditation, use the ABET-Accredited Program Search which lets you filter options by Associate, Bachelor, and Master programs. To learn more information about job outlooks and statistics for becoming a mechanical engineer, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

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