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Mechanical Engineering

A well-rounded education makes mechanical engineers employable in a wide-range of industries

By Liz Harmon

Since you’ve been studying mechanical engineering for some time now, you already know that virtually every item that hums, buzzes, beeps or gurgles has some mechanical component to it. Actually, you probably know that just from being conscious for the past couple of decades. Mechanical devices are everywhere we turn. Mechanical engineers, whether or not they were called such, have taken us from the steam engine to the 280 m.p.h. magnetic levitation train. (OK, so it’s experimental, but it’s still going to be an impressive advancement.) So what’s next?

The Fundamental Things Apply

Computers have changed the mechanical engineering industry considerably. Manufacturers are increasingly replacing old mechanical parts like pistons, gears and levers with electronic components that work faster, break down less often and don’t require messy oil. But Dr. Tim Gutowski, Ph.D., professor and associate head of the mechanical engineering department at MIT, says that’s nothing to worry about.

“The mechanical engineering discipline grows out as new technology emerges,” says Gutowski. “First it was cars, then computers. We’re still here.

“Most electronic things have some mechanical functionality and parts,” he continues. “Since our lives are inundated with them, it’s extremely important that they work reliably. It’s not worth it to have things that break down.”

The new technologies that are now getting the most attention across many disciplines might be called the five Os: nano, macro, bio, eco and info. The principles of mechanical engineering can be applied to all of these technologies, they just might show up differently.

Miniaturization of information and biological technologies will have tremendous influence on the Internet and medical fields. Take a look at your cell phone. Now you can send email and surf the Web from that tiny gadget you carry in your pocket. In order to include even more functions, everything has to get smaller.

Hear That? That’s Opportunity Knocking

Though the U.S. recession has been fierce since September, it’s losing strength, and as of this writing, economists are preparing to call its time of death somewhere in late spring—just in time for your graduation and impending employment.

“I think the prospects are good for new graduates [with mechanical engineering degrees],” says Winfred Phillips, D.Sc., past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and current vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “And in five years the prospects will be even better. Almost everything we use daily is mechanical engineering. We need mechanical engineers.”

Raytheon Company spokeswoman Wendy Jacobs agrees. “Mechanical engineers are in all our business units,” she says. “I think they’ll continue to play a significant role—from subminiature design to the very large mechanical structures we produce.”

As the nation’s third largest defense company, Raytheon employs more than 23,000 engineers, about 10% of whom come from a mechanical background. “We never stop hiring engineers. We always want to attract the best talent,” says Jacobs. “The best engineers are never going to be on the street long.”

Maybe you’re thinking, “No joke Raytheon’s hiring. The country is at war and Raytheon’s bread and butter is in defense.” True enough. But guess who else is hiring? Consulting companies . . . like crazy. Out of MIT’s 2001 class of 52 mechanical engineers, 11 of them—more than 20%—went to consulting companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

“Mechanical engineering is very diffuse, which is a strength and a weakness,” Gutowski says. “I suppose it could be easier [to look for a job] if you’re more closely tied with an industry, like petroleum engineers. But there are lots of opportunities [for mechanical engineers]. For example, a sizeable portion of our students go to Wall Street using their math skills.”

Where the Jobs Are

The winter 2002 salary survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the top three specialty areas in which mechanical engineers were getting job offers were, in order, design engineering, project engineering, and (tied for third place) field and manufacturing engineering. The average starting salary reported was $48,733, which is up eight-tenths of a percent since last year.

“That’s pretty good news for mechanical engineers,” says Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information manager at NACE. “Many disciplines are seeing a decrease in salary offers.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its 2002-03 edition Occupational Outlook Handbook that mechanical engineers held more than 220,000 jobs in 2000 (the latest year for which stats were available), and that half of them were in manufacturing.

“To be a sound mechanical engineer, you have to know how to make stuff,” says Phillips. “The American economy is still reliant on making things.” He alludes to the dotcom crash as evidence of what often happens to companies that sell services but don’t manufacture products.

Overall, the Handbook reports that employment for mechanical engineers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010, with info-, bio- and nanotechnology opening up a whole world of opportunities.

And take that “whole world” stuff seriously. The biggest companies that employ mechanical engineers—like Raytheon, Dow, Motorola, DuPont and the big consulting firms—have offices and clients all over the globe.

“One of the hardest things is to tell an eager new mechanical engineer that [his or her] job is in Singapore or Hong Kong,” says Phillips. But it happens all the time.

“Be flexible. Be mobile,” advises Phillips.

Be All That You Can Be

So you know the best grads will get diverse employment opportunities and decent pay. So how do you become the best?

Some of the answer is pretty obvious and some of it is less so. “Employers are expecting the base knowledge in math and engineering, of course,” Gutowski says, “but they also want presentation skills, interpersonal skills, teamwork skills, and the ability to set your problem in the context of the world.”

What Raytheon wants from new engineers is energy. “We recruit at the college level, looking for people who want to learn, who are motivated, who bring a lot to the table in enthusiasm,” says Jacobs. “A high GPA is helpful, but it’s not primary.

“More and more communication skills are important,” Jacob adds, “because in such a large company in which we’re always trying to create an inclusive culture, people who work well with others become leaders.”

Don’t take this too casually. If you want to get a hold of one of those consulting jobs, for instance, you can’t just be a techie. Take it from Melissa Wood, recruitment manager at design consulting firm Burns & McDonnell: “As consultants, [our] mechanical engineers meet with clients all the time. They have to understand [clients’] needs and be flexible. They need excellent verbal and written communications skills. And it doesn’t hurt to take some balance of business courses.”

Speaking of more courses, you might be wondering if you should take two more years of them—getting a master’s degree. Our experts aren’t conclusive on this point.

“In the past,” says Gutowski, “people have said that ‘entry level’ means a master’s degree. That’s how you prove you really know your stuff.”

Speaking only for Burns & McDonnel, Wood says, “For our purposes, a master’s degree isn’t necessary. We hire in layers; to promote our current people we have to hire new people to take their place.”

Jacobs says of Raytheon: “We have opportunities for both [master’s and bachelor’s degree holders]. Contracts are always changing, so needs are always changing.”

“There is always a need for entry-level mechanical engineers,” asserts Phillips, “especially in larger firms where they can bring new things to an existing team. They might not be project managers immediately, but they are needed.”

Phillips cautions, however, that “upward mobility with a bachelor’s degree is very possible, but you must be prepared to continue learning.”

Liz Harmon is a former editor for Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers.

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