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Nature of the work

Engineers apply the theories and principles of science and mathematics to the economical solution of practical technical problems. Often their work is the link between a scientific discovery and its application. Engineers design machinery, products systems, and processes for efficient and economical performance. They develop electric power, water supply, and waste disposal systems. They design industrial machinery and equipment for manufacturing goods, and heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation equipment for more comfortable living. Engineers also develop scientific equipment to probe outer space and the ocean depths; design defense and weapons systems for the Armed forces; and design, plan, and supervise the construction of buildings, highways, and rapid transit systems. They also design and develop consumer products such as automobiles, home appliances, electronic home entertainment equipment, and systems for control and automation of manufacturing, career, and management processes. Engineers must consider many factors in developing a new product. For example, in developing an industrial robot, engineers must determine the general way it will work, design, and test all components, and fit them together in an integrated plan. They must then evaluate its overall effectiveness, cost, reliability, and safety. This process applies to products as different as lawnmowers, computers, military weapons, and toys.

In addition to design and development, many engineers work in testing, production, operations, or maintenance. They supervise production processes in factories, determine the causes of breakdowns and test newly manufactured products to maintain quality. They also estimate the time and cost to complete projects. Some work in engineering administration and management, or in sales where an engineering background enables them to discuss the technical aspects of a product and assist in planning its installation or use. Some engineers work as consultants.

Most engineers specialize; more than 25 major specialties are recognized by professional societies. Within the major branches are numerous subdivisions. Structural, hydraulic, and highway engineering, for example, are subdivisions of civil engineering. Engineers also may specialize in one industry, such as motor vehicles, or in one field of technology, such as propulsion or guidance systems. Engineers in each branch apply their knowledge to many fields. Electrical engineers, for example, work in the medical, computer, missile guidance, or power distribution fields. Because complex problems cut across traditional fields, engineers in one field often work closely with specialists in scientific, other engineering, and career occupations.

Often using calculators and computers to solve mathematical equations which describe how a machine, structure, or system operates, many engineers also use computer-aided design systems to produce and analyze designs. They also spend a great deal of time writing reports and consulting with other engineers. Complex projects require many engineers, each working with a small part of the job. Supervisory engineers are responsible for entire projects.

Working Conditions

Some engineers are at a desk in an office building almost all of the time but others work in research laboratories, industrial plants, or construction sites where they inspect, supervise, or solve on-site problems. Engineers in specialties such as civil engineering may work outdoors part of the time. A few engineers travel extensively to plants or construction sites.


Engineering is the second largest profession, exceeded only by teaching. In 1990, engineers held over 1.5 million jobs. Over one-half of all engineering jobs were located in manufacturing industries--mostly in electrical and electronic equipment, machinery, aircraft and parts, scientific instruments, chemicals, motor vehicles, fabricated metal products, and primary metals industries. In 1990, 485,000 jobs were in non-manufacturing industries, primarily in engineering and architectural services, career and management consulting services, communications and utilities, and construction.

Federal, State, and local governments employed about 160,000 engineers. Over half of the jobs were in the Federal Government, mainly in the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Agriculture, Interior, and Energy, and in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Most engineers in State and local government agencies worked in highway and public works departments.

Besides the jobs described above, about 48,000 persons held engineering faculty positions in colleges and universities in 1990. Engineers are employed in every State, in small and large cities, and in rural areas. Some branches of engineering are concentrated in particular industries and geographic areas.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree in engineering is generally acceptable for beginning engineering jobs. College graduates with a degree in science or mathematics and experienced technicians may also qualify for some jobs.

Many 2- or 4-year college programs in engineering technology prepare students for practical design and production work rather than for jobs that require more theoretical scientific and mathematical knowledge. Graduates of such 4-year technology programs may get jobs similar to those obtained by graduates with a bachelor's degree in engineering. However, some employers regard them as having skills between those of a technician and an engineer.

Graduate training is essential for engineering faculty positions but is not needed for the majority of entry level engineering jobs. Many engineers obtain a master's degree however, because it often is desirable for learning new technology or for promotion.

About 260 colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in engineering, and over 90 colleges offer a bachelor's degree in engineering technology. Although most institutions offer programs in the larger branches of engineering, only a few offer some of the smaller specialties. Also, course offerings of the same title may vary. For example, one chemical engineering program could emphasize industrial practices, preparing the student for a job in industry, while another could be more theoretical, a better choice for the student preparing to take graduate work. Therefore, students should investigate curriculums carefully before selecting a college. Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering schools usually include courses in advanced high school mathematics and the physical sciences.

In a typical 4-year curriculum, the first 2 years are spent studying basic sciences-- mathematics, physics, chemistry--and introductory engineering and the humanities, social sciences, and English. In the last 2 years, most courses are in engineering, usually with a concentration in one branch of engineering. Some programs offer a general engineering curriculum; students then specialize in graduate school or on the job.

Some engineering schools and 2-year colleges have entered into agreements whereby the 2-year college provides the initial engineering education and the engineering school automatically admits students for their last 2 years. In addition, some engineering schools have arrangements whereby a student spends 3 years in a liberal arts college studying pre-engineering subjects and 2 years in the engineering school and receives a bachelor's degree from each. Some colleges and universities offer 5-year master's degree programs.

Some 5- or even 6-year cooperative plans combine classroom study and practical work experience. In this way, in addition to gaining useful experience, students can fiance part of their education. To keep up with rapid advances in technology, most engineers must continue their education throughout their careers.

All 50 States and the District of Columbia require licensing for engineers whose work may affect life, health, or property, or who offer their services to the public. In 1984, almost 500,000 engineers were registered. Registration generally requires a degree from an accredited engineering program, 4 years of relevant work experience, and passing a State examination. Some States will not register those with degrees in engineering technology.

Beginning engineering graduates usually do routine work under the close supervision of experienced engineers and, in larger companies, may also receive formal classroom or seminar-type training. As they gain knowledge and experience, they are assigned more difficult tasks with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions. Engineers may become technical specialists or may supervise a staff or team of engineers and technicians. Some eventually become managers or administrators within engineering; others leave engineering for nontechnical managerial, administrative, or sales jobs. Some engineers obtain graduate degrees in career administration to improve advancement opportunities; others obtain law degrees and become patent attorneys. Many high level executives in government and industry began their careers as engineers.

Engineers should be able to work as part of a team and should have creativity, an analytical mind, and a capacity for detail. In addition, engineers should be able to express themselves well--both orally and in writing.

Job Outlook Employment opportunities for those with degrees in engineering are expected to be good through the 1990's. In addition, there may be some opportunities for college graduates from related fields in certain engineering jobs.

Employment of engineers is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations through the 1990's. Although only a relatively small proportion of engineers leave the profession each year, most job openings will arise from replacement needs. Most replacement openings are created by engineers who transfer to management, sales, or other professional occupations rather than by engineers who leave the labor force.

Much of the projected growth in requirements for engineers will stem from the expected higher levels of investment in industrial plant and equipment to meet the demand for more goods and services and to increase productivity. More engineers also will be needed to develop and manufacture defense-related products and to improve transportation facilities. Competitive pressures and advancing technology will force companies to improve and update product designs more rapidly than in the past, further adding to requirements.

Most industries are less likely to lay off engineers than other workers. Many engineers work on long-term research and development projects or in other activities which often continue even during recessions. However, in industries such as electronics and aerospace, large cutbacks in defense or research and development expenditures may result in layoffs for engineers.

New computer-aided design systems enable an engineer to produce or modify a design much more rapidly than previously. This increased productivity might result in decreased employment opportunities for engineers doing most of these routine tasks. However, most of these systems have been used to improve the design process by allowing many more design variations to be produced and analyzed. Therefore this technology is not expected to affect employment growth significantly.

It is important for engineers to continue their education throughout their careers because their value to their employer depends on their knowledge of the latest technology. The pace of technological change varies by engineering specialty and industry. Engineers in high-technology areas such as advanced electronics or aerospace may find that their knowledge becomes obsolete rapidly. Even engineers who continue their education are vulnerable to obsolescence if the particular technology or product they have specialized in becomes obsolete. Engineers whom employers consider not to have kept up may find themselves passed over for promotions and are particularly vulnerable to layoffs. However, it is often these high-technology areas that offer the greatest challenges, the most interesting work, and the highest salaries. Therefore, the choice of engineering specialty and employer involves an assessment not only of the potential rewards but also of the risk of technological obsolescence later in one's career. Despite these problems, over the long run the number of people seeking jobs as engineers is expected to about equal the number of job openings.


Starting salaries for engineers with the bachelor's degree are significantly higher than starting salaries of college graduates in other fields. According to the College Placement Council, engineering graduates with a bachelor's degree and no experience averaged about $30,740 a year in private industry in 1990; those with a master's degree and no experience, $36,500 a year; and those with a Ph.D., $47,100. Starting offers for those with the bachelor's degree vary by branch, as shown in the following tabulation.

Petroleum engineering..............$36,000

Chemical engineering............... 32,900

Electrical engineering............. 32,200

Mechanical engineering............. 30,740

Metallurgical Engineering.......... 30,740

Aeronautical engineering........... 30,740

Nuclear engineering................ 30,210

Industrial engineering............. 31,270

Engineering technology............. 28,620

Mining engineering................. 28,100

Civil engineering.................. 27.100

As shown in the following tabulation, engineers in private industry in 1990 averaged $29,500 at the most junior level, and $83,963 at senior managerial levels. Experienced mid-level engineers with no supervisory responsibilities averaged $45,238. (See table 2.)

Table 2. Engineers; salaries in private industry by work level, 1990.

level Percent Average of all salary engineers

Engineers I......... 6.8 $31,000 Engineers II........ 12.0 34,980 Engineers III....... 24.4 38,100 Engineers IV........ 26.4 48,760 Engineers V......... 18.8 55,650 Engineers VI........ 8.8 64,100 Engineers VII....... 2.3 74,700 Engineers VIII...... 0.5 85,860

In the Federal Government in 1990, most engineers with a bachelor's degree and no experience could start at $20,670 or $25,900 a year, depending on their college records. Those with a master's degree could start at $28,600, and those having a Ph.D. degree could begin at $30,740. The average salary for engineers in the Federal Government was about $41,870 in 1990.

Related Occupations

Engineers apply the principles of physical science and mathematics in their work. Other occupations which also use scientific and mathematical principles are physical scientists, life scientists, mathematicians, engineering and science technicians, and architects.

Sources of Additional Information

General information on engineering careers--including engineering school requirements, courses of study, and salaries--is available from:

JETS, Inc., 345 E. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10017.

Society of Women Engineers, 345 E. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10017.

National Society of Professional Engineers, 1420 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314.

A list of accredited engineering programs may be obtained from:

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, 345 E. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10017.


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