What I Did with My Degree: Mechanical Engineering

mechanical-engineering-degreesIn 1970, I was a naive young college student who thought that upon graduation I would be getting a job as a mechanical engineer at an aircraft manufacturer, doing research and development on landing gear. I had a few student loans and I had been working for $2.25 an hour, so the salary of my first engineering job of $11,000 seemed huge. Though I had a letter in May telling me I was hired, when I later received my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME), I learned the job was no longer available. Corporate restructuring, they said. That was my welcome to corporate America!

Rule 1: Engineers can lose a job like everyone else.

I then found another job working for the Federal Aviation Administration.They were also in aviation and that was my passion. They put me in an intern/training position for a more modest $8,500 per year. Their training program taught me electrical, air conditioning, civil and project management stuff I never dreamed about in college. I became a resident engineer on the largest and most complex construction projects.

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Mechanical engineers held 232,660 jobs in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment is expected to grow about as fast as average, and job opportunities are expected to be very good.

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$80,580: Average annual salary of computer software engineers according to the May 2009 BLS report.

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Rule 2: Be flexible and expect to learn a lot after graduation.

I stayed with the FAA for eight years and by then my career had hit a plateau. I was a GS-14 at 30 years old and unlikely to advance much more with the government.

Rule 3: You may have to change employers to keep your career moving.

While in the FAA I had worked in construction, planning, budgeting and basic engineering. I had a good background that let me learn about how to advance. Private engineering jobs in consulting paid more, but I needed professional registration to qualify for them. I had to take a state exam after I had documented having the mandated experience of five years working under other professional engineers. Getting a seal or professional registration in a state allowed me to do work on my own on a professional basis, much like a doctor or lawyer. Under American laws, just having a degree does not make you an engineer and you have to have state registration to practice engineering. To make passing the exam easier, I took a refresher course at a community college that was tailored to people like me taking the exam.

Rule 4: Engineers never quit learning and they should expect to make education a part of their entire life.

After becoming registered, I was a successful engineer in a medium-sized consulting firm. I advanced to the point I became management. My education and experience provided a springboard to a higher-paying job in management. It is important that as we grow older we have a means of passing the knowledge we gain to the younger generation. One effective method for this is moving experienced engineers into management positions. I was now mentoring and training engineers that were just like me when I left college. If you see yourself going into management, it helps to learn about business and management along with pure technical engineering. I eventually became a business owner, wrote a book for a major publisher and obtained several patents. My career was a success, but it did not always go the way I had originally planned. Today, I would say I am a very happy person to have got that BSME when I did. It was smart to be flexible and to make a few strategic job changes. Registration played a big role in my career as did building a resume of accomplishments.

As I am now near retirement age, I would advise anyone that has the aptitude and desire to pursue a mechanical engineering degree. You may not be the richest person in the world by the time your career is finished, but you will make a good salary and have many opportunities to advance. There is a difference between a job and a career, and engineering becomes who you are as a professional.

Engineers are badly needed today, as our technical world depends on a supply of seasoned engineers. If you rank professions, engineers make more than teachers and less than doctors. Most engineers can work regular hours and they have reasonable job security. Mechanical engineers have a very broad field that can serve small to large businesses as well as government. Mechanical engineers enjoy many opportunities to accomplish amazing tasks today. The next heart valve may save lives because of the skills of the mechanical engineer who designed it. You could be that person!

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