Whether launching rockets into space or developing the latest medical technologies, engineers solve problems large and small.
Engineers use science and mathematical principles to develop innovative solutions to technical problems. Engineering is “taking a lot of data and turning it into a usable product and solving the problems to make everybody happy in the process,” says Lisa Bongiovanni, an environmental engineer at Carnow, Conibear & Assoc., Ltd., in Chicago.
No matter what engineering specialty they pursue, all engineers must have a strong background in science, mathematics and technology. They must be natural problem-solvers. Engineers work in a variety of industries and need strong communication skills to share technological concepts with non-engineers.
High school students who are thinking about majoring in engineering should take as many math courses, including calculus and trigonometry, and science courses as possible. “A big part of the engineering curriculum is sitting down and working out problems, whether they’re math problems, physics, mechanical or chemical,” Bongiovanni says. Extracurricular activities, like Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), are also encouraged.
College students should expect to spend four to five years pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Most engineering programs require a concentration in an engineering specialty, like mechanical or aeronautical engineering. Many engineering students participate in cooperative engineering (co-op) education programs. Co-op programs match engineering students with employers to gain hands-on training. “Having some experience when you walk out of college is very valuable. That’s how I got my first job coming out of school,” Bongiovanni says. Students in engineering co-op programs attend classes for part of the year and then work in an engineering-related position for the remainder of the year.
Engineers must have a bachelor’s degree. You can complete an engineering degree in four years, although many students take five years due to the many required courses and time spent in co-op programs. The majority of entry-level jobs do not require graduate training, although you will need to keep up with the latest developments in the field.
Engineering technology, a career closely related to engineering, concentrates more on practical design and production work, rather than the theoretical and scientific knowledge emphasized by traditional engineering. While engineering technicians’ work is more limited than that of engineers, they work closely with engineers and scientists in research and development. Degrees in engineering technology are offered in two- or four-year programs.
“There’s definitely an engineering field that can be tailored to all the different things out there that interest people,” Bongiovanni says. The most popular engineering specialties, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are:
- Civil: Design transportation systems, dams, bridges, buildings and water sewage systems.
- Mechanical: Research, design and develop tools, engines, machines and other mechanical devices.
- Industrial: Make production more efficient through the management of people, business organization and technology.
- Electrical: Design, develop and supervise the manufacture of electrical equipment.
Engineers are employed in every major industry. Overall job opportunities in engineering are expected to be good. The engineering specialties that are projected to have the most job growth include biomedical and environmental engineering. New engineers earn among the highest starting salaries of bachelor’s degree holders. However, earnings vary by specialty, industry and education.
Engineers’ technical experience is valuable in a variety of fields. Engineering degrees can lead to careers in medicine, business, law, computer development and others. Some schools, like the University of Texas, offer programs that incorporate other fields, like business, into engineering coursework. “With an engineering degree, you really can walk into any of the many parts of a business, especially in a technical industry,” Bongiovanni says.