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Mechanical Engineering

Overview of careers in mechanical engineering

By Robert Kallick

For those looking for a career in mechanical engineering, we have good news! Jobs are in excess in today's job market. Overall, mechanical engineering is right behind civil engineering in terms of number of engineers in the workplace today, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The Handbook adds that mechanical engineers are projected to have an average rate of employment growth through 2014. Although total employment in manufacturing industries is expected to decline, employment of mechanical engineers in manufacturing is expected to actually increase because the demand for improved machinery and machine tools will grow, and industrial machinery and processes will become increasingly complex. Also, emerging technologies in biotechnology, materials science and nanotechnology will create new job opportunities for mechanical engineers.

Opportunities Abound

The need for mechanical engineers by EPC companies is in high demand, says Charles Nash, vice president of engineering for Yoh, a talent and outsourcing firm in the engineering community. And mechanical engineers have many options to apply their skill sets to the real world, he adds.

"As an example, in the chemical plant environment, they may work with the design or application of equipment or the stress characteristics of a process piping system," Nash says.

"In the food industry, they may be involved with development and design of conveying systems, or packing and packaging systems. In research and development, they may be involved with systems related to jet propulsion, space-travel, land-travel and sea- and sub-sea systems."

In a sense, Nash says, a mechanical engineer is an inventor of mechanical components and systems involving the application of principles of physics for analysis, design and manufacturing, and maintenance of mechanical systems.

Build Your Backup

With all of these opportunities, the only way to get started in the industry is by getting the proper education. An undergraduate engineering program usually requires four to five years of study.

"The coursework includes a foundational course in mathematics and physics, which provides the necessary background to study mechanical engineering," says Margaret Bailey, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). "Core mechanical engineering courses are numerous and vary significantly in content, ranging from statics and dynamics to engineering design, heat transfer and numerical methods."

Bailey adds that in addition to core courses, students further explore their interest areas within mechanical engineering at RIT through completion of technical elective courses and completion of a capstone design.

"For example, at RIT we have developed several option areas which are closely aligned with our students' technical interests, including aerospace, energy and the environment, bioengineering and automotive," she says. "Within each option there are numerous courses to help students develop a depth of understanding.

At some engineering colleges, including RIT, students are required to complete a series of co-op educational experiences, which complement and strengthen their mechanical engineering foundation," Bailey explains. At RIT, students work outside of the classroom as "engineers-in-training" at locations around the country and the world.

In the Real World

"Once in the workplace, mechanical engineers can take on a number of functions," says David Bonifacic, managing principal of WB, a Manhattan-based mechanical/electrical/plumbing firm. "Consulting mechanical engineers design, plan and supervise the construction of new buildings or the renovation of existing facilities," he says. "Mechanical consulting engineers work on the complete infrastructure in a facility, including any part that moves such as people, air and water."

In addition to design and construction, mechanical engineers often work on due diligence studies of facilities.

"This involves developing life cycle costs analysis to verify if a project is worth undertaking," says Bonifacic. "Mechanical engineers in one field often work closely with specialists in other building disciplines—for example electrical engineers, plumbing and fire protection engineers, architects, structural and civil engineers. A lot of our time is spent outside of the office or in the field. We conduct site surveys, attend meetings and during construction we regularly visit the project site in order to monitor or direct operations or solve onsite problems."

In order to be successful as a mechanical engineer, Bailey says that there are a number of personal characteristics you should have. Being able to work together in teams is just one of many of these characteristics.

"Engineers must be able to work effectively on teams which consist of engineers from other disciplines as well as non-engineers, such as scientists, researchers, architects, industrial designers and medical professionals," she says. "Therefore, an ideal personal characteristic for an engineer is someone who likes working with people who may be quite different from themselves as far as educational background."

Engineers also need to be able to creatively solve problems. "People who enjoy problem solving and who push themselves towards creative solutions should consider engineering," she adds. "The problems that engineers solve are usually focused on people and affect quality of life. Therefore, having an interest in improving the quality of life is also quite common among engineers."

Now's the Time

With the shortage of engineers entering the field, Nash says now is the time to become a mechanical engineer, if it appeals to you.

"We currently are in short supply of all disciplines of engineering personnel as related to the typical energy engineering industry needs," he says. "This is in part due to the fact that many of our graduating engineers have chosen to focus their training in a different line of business, such as the information technology industry." Depending on the specific industry chosen, many mechanical engineers will earn six-figure salaries within a few years.

Robert Kallick is a freelance writer and career expert living in Chicago.

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