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How to Become a Mechanical Engineer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Mechanical engineers are responsible for designing and developing the components and machines that are used in a variety of industries, from construction to robotics. A mechanical engineering technician makes the machines that other engineers use in their day-to-day work.

Mechanical engineering is a lucrative profession, with engineers holding a bachelor’s degree earning an average of $90,160 per year. There are many progression options within the field of mechanical engineering technology, with graduates having the option of specializing at master’s degree level, focusing on the practical aspects of engineering, or going into mechanical design.

In some states, mechanical engineers are required to be licensed, but this is not the case across the whole of the country.

Professional engineers can choose between a variety of focuses, working environments, and specializations, including building, designing or testing machines and devices, working in automotive manufacturing, construction, or consulting. The field has a lot of room for progression and ongoing study, allowing committed engineers to keep learning and experiment with new technologies throughout their careers.

What does a mechanical engineer do?

Mechanical engineering is a branch of engineering that focuses on making machines. These engineers sometimes work on the macro scale, coming up with the designs for large plants or facilities. Sometimes, however, they work on the micro-scale, designing individual components.

What exactly is a mechanical engineer?

Mechanical engineers are skilled engineers that work on all areas of a product and project lifecycle, from design, development, and installation of machines to their testing and maintenance.

Mechanical engineering jobs are some of the most diverse in the field of engineering. Someone with a mechanical engineering degree could go on to hold a job as a manufacturing engineer, or work in construction, power, or even the medical sector.

At the bachelor’s degree level, these engineers learn about mechanics, materials science, and thermodynamics.

What do mechanical engineers do?

A mechanical engineer’s job can include a variety of tasks, including analyzing problems, designing and developing prototypes of components, tools, equipment, or entire machines, testing those prototypes, and potentially overseeing the manufacturing process.

Mechanical engineers may be involved with construction, biomechanics, engineering, nanotechnology, or acoustical engineering. At the undergraduate level, a mechanical engineer learns a little about the different fields and elements of engineering, then if they choose to specialize they can pursue a master’s degree in a more specific area.

Mechanical engineers are at the forefront of their profession, and this means they have the opportunity to learn about a variety of different technologies as a part of their job, focusing on the areas that are of most interest to them, and potentially pioneering new mainstream uses for emerging technologies.

What are the average responsibilities of a mechanical engineer?

Mechanical engineers fill a variety of roles, across the whole of the manufacturing lifecycle, their job may involve:

  • Analyzing problems and learning how mechanical devices could solve them
  • Designing (or improving) systems and subsystems
  • Using Computer-Aided Design to create schematics
  • Investigating equipment or device failures and diagnosing issues
  • Recommending remedies for equipment problems
  • Designing prototypes of new devices
  • Testing those prototypes
  • Analyzing the test results and performing iterative improvements to the design
  • Overseeing the manufacturing process for the final design

In some companies, a mechanical engineering specialist will fill all of those roles. In others, they may be focused on one specific area such as research and development.

The items a mechanical engineer works on could be as small as a new set of batteries to something like a new crane for a construction site, or as crucial as a piece of medical equipment.

Mechanical engineers may work on electric generators and internal combustion engines, air conditioning systems, automotive equipment, elevators and escalators, or anything else that moves.

Historically, mechanical engineering skills were seen as separate from computing skills, but over time that has changed. Today, a professional engineer would be expected to be reasonably computer-literate, understanding how to integrate sensors and controllers into the machines they make.

For example, a robotics engineer might create robots that respond to certain stimuli, such as automated vacuum cleaners that can find their way around a commercial space, or picking and packing robots that need to read NFC codes to find items. These engineers would need to understand how to integrate sensors into the design of their robots.

Auto research engineers, on the other hand, would specialize in aerodynamics, fuels, and understanding how cars work. They explore issues such as the balance between ventilating an engine and offering good aerodynamic efficiency, or how suspension and ride height can impact the performance of a vehicle.

What to expect as a mechanical engineer

Mechanical engineers have a variety of career options and have the chance to progress from being mechanical engineering technicians into more specialized roles. As the job of an engineer becomes more specialized, they’ll see their role become more focused, but their earning potential will also increase.

Some mechanical engineers stay in a specific area of engineering for their whole careers, such as aerospace, CAD, or civil engineering. Others move into different processions where knowledge of engineering is useful, but not required, such as production, mining, or even acoustics.

What are the different fields that are currently experiencing a need for mechanical engineers?

Mechanical engineers are required in a variety of fields, including:

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Control and instrumentation
  • Nuclear engineering
  • Construction
  • Mechanical engineering
  • CAD
  • Maintenance
  • Acoustics

Some of these fields require engineers that have a degree in the subject, but others include a lot of transferable skills. For example, CAD/CAM is an area that is lends itself to people who have some design skills and computer literacy. Civil engineering can involve some understanding of architecture and town planning.

Because of the diversity of specializations available to mechanical engineers, there are many different routes not just into the profession, but also for experienced workers. Someone who earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-engineering-related subject may still have the chance to transition into the profession and pursue a master’s that allows them to work in engineering.

What is the average starting salary for mechanical engineers and how is this expected to change in the next decade?

A mechanical engineer can expect to earn an average salary of $90,160 per year. however, this figure is an average across the profession and covers different levels of experience too.

The lowest-paid 25% of mechanical engineers earn around $70,280 per year, while the top 25% of earners can expect salaries of around $111,980.

Those who move into other specializations such as civil engineering may see slightly higher earnings, with median salaries of $87,060.

Mechanical engineers are very much in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that demand for these engineers will increase by 4% between 2019 and 2029. This is a rate similar to the growth of the wider economy, and means mechanical engineers with qualifications and experience should find their skills in demand.

Salaries for mechanical engineers have increased steadily over time, in line with inflation. Those who would like to earn as high a salary as possible upon graduation may wish to consider the differences in salaries between individual states. For example, salaries in California are above the national average.

Steps to becoming a mechanical engineer

Most people who wish to become mechanical engineers pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering as their first qualification.  Those who wish to advance their careers  and pursue more specialist roles may wish to upgrade to a master’s degree.

What prerequisites do you need in order to apply for a mechanical engineering program?

The entry requirements for mechanical engineering degree programs can vary between institutions. If you are interested in pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, you should check the entry requirements for each institution you are considering studying with.

In most cases, for an undergraduate program, you will be expected to have a high school diploma or a GED, with passing grades in a number of pre-requisite subjects such as mathematics and physics.

One common requirement is for an overall GPA of at least 2.5, or 3.0 for some universities, with passing grades required in all pre-requisite classes. The most competitive universities may have higher requirements than this.

Many universities offer multiple entry routes, and are willing to work with applicants who are passionate about engineering. For example, The University of Washington offers clear entry routes for people at various stages of their academic careers.

High school students are encouraged to apply to the university via their direct to college program, while there are other options for students who have been admitted to the university already, but who have not yet declared their major, or for those who are hoping to transfer from another college.

Students who are lacking the pre-requisite courses for a mechanical engineering major may have the option of sitting remedial classes while studying the general education elements of their degree, or of joining on a progress-based admission basis. This gives the student the chance to prove they have an understanding of the fundamentals, while working on other aspects of the course.

Summer schools give students who struggled with specific courses the chance to catch up on the content they’ve missed. If you lack the required grades in math or lab-focused science courses, then taking them at a summer school may be your best chance of getting entry into an engineering course.

How can I pay for a mechanical engineering degree?

Mechanical engineering degrees usually take four years to complete, and are worth a total of 120 credits, although some may have extra credits, or take longer due to placement years.

Because there are a lot of practical elements to these courses, they’ll usually be delivered in an on-campus or hybrid format. It’s not usually possible to take a mechanical engineering degree as an online-only degree due to the level of practical work required.

This means students who want to take a mechanical engineering degree will need to budget for four years of on-campus study, which could cost around $20,000 per year. Fees vary between institutions, so it’s a good idea to check the costs before you apply.

Many students apply for financial aid in the form of bursaries or scholarships. If you’re planning to do this, be sure to apply for FAFSA first of all, because most organizations that offer financial aid expect applicants to have explored that option. FAFSA is a federal program that offers low interest loans for students who are on a low income or otherwise in financial need.

Merit-based scholarships such as the one offered by the Churchill Foundation give students interested in studying STEM subjects the opportunity to get their course partly-funded. It’s possible to receive scholarships from more than one organization and, when combined with federal financial aid and potential support from the universities themselves, these funding options can greatly reduce the cost of studying a mechanical engineering course.

Mechanical engineering graduates could potentially earn twice the national average income, making the profession well worth pursuing in the long term, even if a learner has to take out student loans or work part-time while studying for their degree. Good engineering skills are an investment in a person’s long term earning potential, and their future.

What are the expectations that you will need to meet in an engineering program?

Students who are enrolled in an engineering program at university will be expected to maintain certain academic standards. While the content and the level of courses can vary between institutions, any degree that is accredited by a national or a regional body such as the Higher Learning Commission will need to meet certain standards.

The practical nature of engineering degrees means most courses are delivered on-campus, although there may be some blended learning courses where students can study theoretical courses online and then complete the practical elements and labs on-campus.

Courses will include a mixture of practical assignments, coursework and examinations, with continuing enrollment dependent on the student maintaining certain grades.

Most mechanical engineering degrees will include both individual and group projects. These projects will give students the chance to demonstrate the skills they have in project management, computer aided design, prototyping, testing, and other areas.

Mechanical engineers fill highly specialized roles, and they are required to uphold high standards in all of the work that they do. This means the programs are quite rigorous, and if you’re preparing for the Fundamentals of Engineering examination, or the PE examination, you’ll need to have a robust understanding of your specialization, and the experience to back that up.

Most people studying mechanical engineering degrees will find themselves putting in extra time to get work experience, or taking some time to do a work placement year. Take advantage of any opportunities that your university gives you to do this, because it will help you get a better job upon graduation.

What further degrees or certifications should you obtain in order to put yourself ahead of the competition?

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, the next natural step for someone who is looking to advance their career would be to pursue a master’s degree in a specific specialization.

A recent graduate may work as a mechanical engineering technician, gaining experience in their chosen area, such as robotics, automotive engineering, mechanical design or civil engineering.

Undergraduates who want to have a head start in terms of seeking employment after graduation may want to look for universities that offer a five or six year program that combines a bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree and also offers the opportunity to gain some work experience.

If a mechanical engineer wishes to provide services to the general public, they must obtain a license. In practice, this means most engineers do choose to seek their license, so they have more freedom in terms of the work that they do.

To get a mechanical engineering license, an engineer must complete a degree that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. In addition, they must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination, set by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

The Fundamentals of Engineering Examination takes six hours to complete, and allows mechanical engineers to provide basic services to the public. Once a graduate has worked in an engineering role for a period of four years, they can take the Principles and Practice of Engineering examination. A person who passes that examination can call themselves a professional engineer.

In many states, engineers are required to undertake a program of continuing education in order to remain licensed. Engineers will usually find their licenses are portable, however, with employers being willing to honor licenses from different states, as long as the licensing requirements in the other state are equal to or higher than the requirements in the state the engineer is seeking to work.

Engineers can pursue certifications from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which may make the more desirable to employers. The society offers certifications on subjects ranging from Nuclear Materials Organization to Bioprocessing Equipment, preparing engineers to practice in a variety of areas.

Specializations at the master’s degree level may include:

  • Environmental, structural and geotechnical engineering
  • Sustainable engineering
  • Transport
  • Civil engineering
  • Environmental policy and planning
  • Wastewater and rainwater management
  • Mining
  • Innovative structural materials
  • Nuclear engineering
  • Automotive engineering

In addition to practical engineering work and town planning, there are options for people who are specializing in engineering to move into other areas such as teaching, with the right certifications and academic background.

How to find a mechanical engineering job

As you head into your final year at university you should consider where you would like to work, and start looking at ways to gain experience, make contacts, and set yourself apart from other recent graduates.

How do you go about networking to find a mechanical engineering job?

Networking is an important part of finding any job, and it’s also something your university will most likely be able to help you with. Most universities that have an engineering program will have contacts with local firms that do engineering work, and may even place students with those companies for internships, or have students work with those companies as a part of their final year project.

As an undergraduate, you should take the opportunity to make connections with those employers, get any hands-on experience you can, and get your name known by employers. In a practical field such as engineering, a degree will not be enough to get a job with a top employer. Experience is crucial, and that’s where placements come in.

Don’t leave it until the end of year jobs fair to start thinking about where you’d like to work. Attend talks, lectures and after-class sessions run by employers. Take part in competitions and extra credit projects, and join any engineering societies you can.

Take part in makerspaces and contribute to any interesting projects or extracurricular activities such as teaching high schoolers about engineering. While these things aren’t directly related to your future work, they’ll show passion and motivation, which are both important for early-career engineers.

Another thing you may wish to do is start a LinkedIn profile and a blog about your final year project. This will allow you to share your progress on your project, and let employers see your educational journey. If you’ve made a positive impression on any employers that have visited your university, or ones that you interned with, you’ll find it easy to connect with them via LinkedIn, and you can point them to your blog as a portfolio.

Be realistic about your first job after graduation. Unless you’ve been able to get a lot of work experience while studying, you’ll most likely be in a junior position as a mechanical engineering technician. Once you’re with a company and have learned their processes and procedures, however, you’ll find there are opportunities to move into design, research and development or managerial positions.

How should you decide on whether or not to be in a union that supports mechanical engineers?

Mechanical engineers have the option of joining a union, but not all engineers choose to do so. Unions provide a variety of benefits to workers. They offer protection to workers and strive to promote better pay and working conditions.

However, while some countries consider unions to be standard for many professions, they are controversial in the United States. Unions often charge membership fees, and those who are not in favor of unions fear that the existence of them drives up costs for employers.

In addition, many of the protections that unions offer focus on the seniority of the member. Some people fear this means a motivated mechanical engineer who is still relatively junior may struggle to get the promotion they deserve if they’re with a unionized employer that focuses on looking after more senior members.

Deciding whether or not to join a union and work with companies that are unionized is a personal decision. Some engineers feel that unions are worth their membership fees because of the protections for worker’s rights. Engineers who are part of a union may benefit from better job security and better working conditions and should also find it easier to organize should there be a safety issue or other problem at their workplace.

How should you decide on whether or not to become a chartered mechanical engineer?

The job title of engineer is protected in most states, and engineers who want to provide services to the public are required to pass a licensing examination.

In some countries, there are protected titles such as Chartered Engineer (CEng) or ICE Member (MICE). These titles mean the engineer has taken the time to earn professional recognition, passing examinations and subscribing to codes of conduct set by those membership bodies.

While these titles are widely recognized in the countries that use them, and do carry a lot of respect in the United States, they’re not protected titles in the USA.

Becoming a chartered engineer means completing an accredited program of study, typically including postgraduate work, and applying for membership, as well as paying a membership fee.

It’s possible to work as a mechanical engineer without charter membership, and not all employers are concerned about charter membership. However, there are some high-level positions where CEng status is valuable.

Charter membership is not mandatory, and it is not a substitute for earning the Professional Engineer status in the USA. If you’re serious about engineering and want to work in the profession in the long term, focus on the licensing requirements for your state, and consider charter status and additional certifications once you’re more senior and ready to start looking for that competitive edge.

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