Calling all STEM mavens: if you’re mathematically and scientifically inclined and have a keen mind for strategy and putting specific methodologies into practice, process engineering may be a perfect career for you. These individuals typically handle chemical processes for manufacturing companies and plants, converting raw materials into usable products like clean water, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and food and drink.
If you’re interested in environmentally-conscious projects, process engineering provides an excellent opportunity to directly affect change, as many current process engineers are directing their focus on sustainable manufacturing practices and the use of renewable energy. Due to the training and credentials required for this position, process engineers can often shift into other facets of engineering later in their careers, like civil engineering and mechanical engineering.
For a full rundown of what to expect when charting the process engineer career course, read on.
Process engineers require a bachelor’s degree, preferably a Bachelor’s of Science (BS) in chemical engineering, industrial engineering, or manufacturing. All prospective process engineers must receive a diploma from a university program with an accreditation from the ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology).
Practical experience working in a laboratory environment is also desirable for entry-level process engineers, and that employment history can be gained through internships. Also, if you’re just starting out in the field, a Professional Engineer license (a state-level designation with requirements that vary depending on where you’re located) is highly encouraged by the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics.
A graduate degree isn’t strictly necessary to practice process engineering, but if you hope to ascend to a senior or management position, a master’s degree or doctoral degree in chemical, manufacturing, or materials process engineering is recommended. However, significant prior work experience typically proves more valuable than advanced academic degrees in this field, due to its highly practical nature.
While it’s a common assumption that chemical engineers and process engineers perform the same job, process engineers are actually a specialized subset of chemical engineering. Because their primary focus involves manufacturing, they’re less concerned with devising new chemical procedures than with using existing principles to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of plants and factories. Process engineers need to be skilled chemists, but they also must possess significant knowledge of math and physics in order to put their ideas into practical use.
Other necessary skills for process engineers include quick problem-solving abilities, top-notch communication capabilities, a strong command of time-management strategies, excellent computer skills and the ability to provide IT support to oneself and one’s team members, and — perhaps most of all — an interest and inclination for creative reasoning.
Depending on the size of the facility that employs a process engineer, her job may require a blend of laboratory work and in-office planning sessions. The primary responsibility of the process engineer involves coming up with a system for getting the required technology up and running at the lab or the plant and setting down a step-by-step process for converting the raw material into the desired end product.
In addition to designing, installing, and modifying equipment and systems, process engineers must examine data to plan future steps, must assist with project cost estimates and budgeting, must research- and, in some cases, design- new equipment, must help to interview and hire sub-contractors, must supervise manufacturing processes in order to optimize production, and must evaluate the safety of the facility and generate reports on its environmental impact while also ensuring that it meets federal and state regulations.
Process engineering covers a wide spectrum of potential professions. If a company or a manufacturing group creates chemical products of any kind, a process engineer will likely be enlisted to join the team. These organizations may include nuclear plants, water treatment facilities, chemical manufacturers, groups focused on recycling, environmental preservation, and green energy, oil companies, pharmaceutical producers, tech companies, consulting firms specializing in engineering, finance organizations responsible for funding manufacturers and chemical producers, and insurance firms responsible for inspecting chemical plants and refineries.
Companies as varied as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Intel, Tesla, Montesanto, Dow Chemical Company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Google, Apple, PepsiCo, Frito Lay, General Motors, Chrysler, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers all hire process engineers to complete different tasks for their organizations.
In recent years, sustainable engineering has become a high-profile subset of the process engineering profession. Sustainable engineers work to design systems that use energy in a responsible and waste-resistant manner. These scientists seek to keep manufacturing plants as clean and environmentally-friendly as possible- an important pursuit, considering the threat of climate change and today’s political atmosphere.
According to ZipRecruiter, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 10% rise in demand for industrial engineers and an 8% growth for chemical engineers between now and 2026, noting that process engineers can expect a similar demand increase. With the field expanding at such a rapid pace, process engineers can position themselves for significant personal career growth.
If a process engineer shows a strong rate of success as an entry-level and junior employee, she may receive promotions to senior process engineer roles and process engineering management (a supervisory role responsible for a team of process engineers). Eventually, her career path could lead in a different direction than process engineering; according to Payscale, a high percentage of process engineers ultimately transition into civil engineering and project management for construction and architecture.
The average salary for a process engineer depends heavily on the size of the manufacturing company employing her; large private companies typically pay more than smaller groups and government-funded operations. However, Payscale reports that the average annual salary for a mid-career process engineer in the United States currently stands at $71,879. Base salaries range from $54,691-98,729, bonuses can be anywhere from $862 to $10,314 per year, companies offering profit sharing pay out $490-9,450 annually, and a mean commission rate for participating companies is $4,069.