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Mechanical Engineering

From Mechatronics to Medicine, Mechanical Engineers Push Employers' Hot Buttons

By Charlotte Thomas

When corporate recruiters grill college placement directors about how they can entice graduating students to their companies, you know it's a seller's market—sellers in this case being mechanical engineering students. They're a hot item for employers in industries that encompass the spectrum of American economy: computers, to medicine to heavy manufacturing. John A. Tichy, chair of the Mechanical/Aeronautical Engineering and Mechanics Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) reports a booming market for his graduating engineers. Employers have good reason to want to know what attracts entry-level MEs. RPI seniors are taking their time deciding between offers. Having seen layoffs and downsizings occur, they are somewhat cynical about the job market and realize their first job is a launching pad to many future employers.

They've got plenty to choose from notes Robert Benson, professor and head of Penn State's Mechanical Engineering Department. He predicts the same excellent job outlook for his graduating engineers, "Employers are a stupendous presence on this campus." In response to a thriving economy, companies that were on the lean side a few years ago now demand the new insights and fresh blood that current entry-levels bring.

Hiring Trends

The computational skills that mechanical engineers have are a big drawing card for traditional employers in the automotives, aerospace and manufacturing category as well as nontraditional companies such as consulting and software firms. Tichy points out the high demand software companies have for MEs who know the design end of mechanical engineering but also speak the language of software. In his opinion the increase in consulting firm recruitment came about because research, the first to go in downsizing, was farmed out to consulting companies and there it remains.

Tichy notes a greater number of companies are nabbing only a few engineers, rather than only a few mega firms sweeping up a third of RPI's entire crop of mechanicals as has been the case in the past. He says this is the result of huge corporate giants breaking up into smaller components, each with their own recruitment needs. Yet another attractive source of jobs for entry-levels are start-ups and the many small, relatively unknown companies flooding campuses these days. Though RPI doesn't keep track of the number of students going to smaller firms in the conventional survey its career office puts out, Tichy has noticed a growing number of his students opting to work for the nonbrand-name employers. For example, interesting jobs are to be found in the entrepreneurial ventures that many professors have started or new ventures found in local technology parks, many of which are located around universities.

Some emerging employers, which, though not likely to become big employers of mechanical engineering graduates, offer some interesting possibilities. Bioengineering is one of them. "It may never be a huge field compared to GM or Ford," says Benson, "but it is growing from a small base." He cites agricultural and food manufacturing firms as an overlooked market filled with many options that occur because of the exotic materials and sophisticated machinery used in these fields. The explosion of advanced materials science has opened lots of interesting doors for this year's mechanical engineers according to Benson. "Any time you remove a limitation, you open up a new arena of design. Any new material advance changes the ground rules. There are lots of competitive reasons to pay attention to this," he observes.

The development of mechatronics, a Japanese-coined word that describes the use of electronics to control machines, also impacts the job market for mechanicals. Benson, whose own work includes research into magnetic recording drives with sophisticated electronic controls, is optimistic about the job prospects for students who are familiar with this technology. Tichy puts his own spin on the effect of mechatronics on employment. "It's a new technology applied to current business, rather than new businesses being established," he comments. Some of the areas where mechatronics is being applied are testing and trouble-shooting in aerospace and automotives. Benson sees further applications arising in artificial intelligence, neural networks, machine learning, which, he says, are hybrids of mechatronics.

Mechanical graduates are ahead of the game if they have the soft skills employers talk up nowadays. Managers want new employees to hit the ground running in leadership, teamwork and communication skills. While in school, Tichy points out, "It's every person for themselves in a one-on-one competition." In the workplace, employees are not in competition with each other but have to work together to get the product out the door. Those mechanical students who understand this from the get-go will go a lot further.

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