Mechanical Engineering Career Assessment
While three-quarters of those practicing mechanical engineering are positive about their jobs, there's a need for more application-based education. Control Engineering salary survey respondents also expressed greater appreciation for the business value of good engineering.
Mark T. Hoske and Renee Robbins, Control Engineering
Mechanical engineering can bring more value to businesses than many realize, according to a recent Control Engineering salary survey and career assessment on mechanical engineering. While 74% were positive about their current positions, individual comments were aimed directly at the need for better engineering education, a wider diversity of skills, and a better understanding of applications to better advance the future of the engineering profession.
This is the first of three salary and career surveys planned for 2010. Prior Control Engineering salary research surveyed all subscribers and showed a wide range of engineering functions involved in automation and controls: electrical and electronic, instrumentation, design, automation / manufacturing, system integration, and mechatronics (blending electronic and mechanical systems). This year, we divide the research into distinct groups. Here we talk to mechanical engineers, or those involved in mechanical engineering (ME) functions. In July, look for a report on what system integrators have to say about salary and career opportunities. In September, we'll report the results of a survey of process industry professionals.
Who's in the ME mix
About 70% of respondents work with an ME degree: About half have four-year mechanical engineering degrees, 20% have advanced ME degrees, and about 30% have other degrees or education and use mechanical engineering in their current positions. Half the respondents work in a product manufacturing or processing plant, while about 20% are machine builders, OEMs or component suppliers, and about 13% work for an engineering services firm including system integrators. Job functions vary widely with the top three being product design engineering; production engineering, process or manufacturing; and system design engineering.
Mechanical engineers have a lot of responsibilities. Fifty-five percent manage others, and 30% of respondents manage 11 or more. The size of the department, group or team has increased for about 20% or respondents, but remained the same for more than 40%. Increased workloads translated into the need for contract services for 39%, while mergers or acquisitions affected 18% of respondents. Despite all that change, 41% reported that they had 10 years or more with their current company; 26% said they had three years or less.
Overall compensation has increased for 42% of respondents, stayed the same for 30%, and decreased for 28%. As for base salaries, 26% make $50,000 or less; almost half (47%) make $75,000 or more. And, although the U.S. economy is just recovering from recession, 35% of respondents received a bonus last year, which averaged $7,850.
What led to the higher salaries? Of the 42% of respondents overall who received higher compensation, re-sorting the data by different attributes shows that growth is good. For those reporting that their departments grew in headcount, 47% saw a compensation increase, while 40% had the same compensation and just 13% had less.
Some more traditional associations didn't have a higher-than-average correlation, however, to compensation increases.
Management does not guarantee a raise. For those with management responsibilities, just 29% reported higher compensation, while 44% stayed the same, and 27% decreased.
Loyalty is not necessarily rewarded. For those with 10 years or more with the company, just 25% reported higher compensation, while 35% earned the same, and 40% earned less.
Compensation increase does influence satisfaction. For those who reported being “very satisfied” with their job, 44% had received higher compensation and just 18% had received less. For those “somewhat satisfied,” 23% had received more compensation and 28% had received less.
Half the respondents took extra time to leave comments in the write-in section. Squeaky wheels (unhappy engineers) didn't make more noise, though: 70% of those leaving comments had expressed satisfaction with their current positions. Further, just 10% of those leaving comments (and 5% of those taking the survey overall) advised against pursuing a mechanical engineering career.
Many comments offered specific recommendations to help others succeed in mechanical engineering-related positions. Other comments (90%) discussed job changes and the future of mechanical engineering; the impact of college on their careers (88%); and the challenges and benefits of being a mentor to new engineers (39%). Here's what respondents had to say.
“Since I began my career, my job has changed in the following way…”
Answers demonstrated evolution of mechanical engineering careers and individual career paths.
During his engineering career, John Schott, PE, CAP, and principal engineer with TimeShare Technical Services, went from machinery design to automation design to automation controls to control system programming.
Vasant D. Kasar, chief executive (technical), Jindal Poly Films Ltd., Jindal Group (a diversified manufacturing and power business), reported a progression of career titles: design engineer, engineering manager, general manager, vice president technical adviser, leading to the current position.
During his career, Roger Everett at Cummins experienced department consolidation, fewer people, and more work.
Chuck Claus, equipment maintenance engineer with Big Red Inc. (beverage industry), “was hired to do equipment maintenance and help with production. Since then I have designed, procured, and installed a PLC automation project, performed building maintenance, loaded and unloaded trucks with a forklift, and have designed numerous physical improvements to the plant.”
Learning never ends, suggested a respondent at a supplier of integrated conveyer systems and system integrator, as he has to “study more to keep up with changing technologies.”
Another said: “I was the first engineer hired for the installation of the plant and managed civil, electrical, contractors and IT jobs, being a mechanical engineer. Now the plant is in production and my job has increased due to operational and maintenance jobs.”
More work, less appreciation
Other respondents commented on the fact that they're doing more work but feeling less appreciated:
Now there's much more paperwork, documentation, and validation. Probably the biggest change is that years ago my supervisors seemed to have a better understanding of our customers and what would help them. You could propose an idea without being a polished presenter and management could understand the value (or explain to you why they felt it may not have value). Today, management doesn't seem to truly understand our customers and their problems. There is far too much focus on competitors instead of customers. Some in management also don't seem to understand the value their engineers can provide. Properly managed engineers should be making their organization money. Increasingly, engineering seems to be treated as simply overhead to be reduced.
There is less value to technical capabilities and more emphasis placed on being a team player—shorthand for “playing good politics.” Strong engineering is not valued as much as it was in the '70s.
Since I began my career there has been a large increase of outsourcing and subcontracting. Companies hire when needed. There has also been a need to diversify skills. In our business, the more diverse the engineer, the more optimally his/her time can be utilized. You can always subcontract out expertise when needed for the limited scope required.
The engineering is enjoyable, but the finance side is frustrating and it involves dealing with mentally lazy people.
When asked about how their college experiences did or didn't prepare them for their current job responsibilities, responses were mixed.
About 27% of responses noted that college was good preparation; 44% expressed mixed views, and 29% were negative about college preparations. As one respondent said, “the degree got me in the door,” but beyond that, most respondents acknowledge the need for lifelong learning: “Upgrading knowledge is a must.”
Many affirm the need for a blend of engineering skills—electrical and mechanical, for example—as well as software and design skills. People skills are highly touted. Especially desirable are persistence, problem-solving, and the ability to effectively communicate ideas and “sell yourself.”
Schott said that, in college, “a broad technical background helped me through changes in my area of responsibility.” Having that breadth helped with continued learning, he suggested, as “much of the technology I deal with today did not exist when I was in college,” he said.
Newer areas of study helped in all Kasar's positions, especially those covering vibration, mechanical measurement, heat transfer, and energy savings. Claus said, his degree (Associate in Electronics Technology) is nearly directly in line with his job functions.
Another respondent noted: 1) Lots of hard work to achieve the degree was worthwhile. 2) Some cooperative education experience was valuable.
Others were not as positive about their college education and how it prepared them for the workforce. Everett suggested most of the learning for his current position came from sources outside of college. Another respondent said, “School teaches you how to learn, not what to learn.” Application-based knowledge, which doesn't necessarily come with an engineering degree, is very important to job success.
Another said that “college provided 1) No controls training whatsoever. 2) Little economics—all engineers need to have a basic economic understanding beyond 'engineering economics.' 3) Six Sigma has become a standard method and was not presented. 4) No training on public speaking. Selling yourself and your ideas is important. 5) Little generic leadership training.
Some of the complaints were severe:
“No college could have prepared anyone for this mess.”
“Some graduates have engineering degrees in theory, but don't understand even the most basic principles.”
“A good percentage of the engineers graduated are worthless (no practical application experience).”
Needs beyond college
Other comments reveal what current engineering managers are looking for in the new engineers they hire and train:
Being able to get along well with others is usually more important than technical knowledge.
Some very demanding professors taught me to rely on myself and to do my best. When interviewing potential job candidates today, I find that there seems to be too much emphasis on teamwork in college. It is true that you will work together as a team in industry, but this is a skill that most reasonable, intelligent people can learn in the workplace. Too many new graduates today don't seem to understand all the responsibilities of their jobs because they became specialists too early while serving on team projects.
While university and college is excellent at teaching the skills required to learn and adapt, as well as the engineering knowledge needed to build a platform of expertise, university can not prepare for every kind of environment. It's one thing to discuss stress management, resource and time management, but another entirely to practice it when you work in an environment that does not provide resources to manage those issues.
College helped with the logical steps in solving issues—a solid base to examine why things happen or occur. College or its equal will never train someone to have desire or passion, and to me these are crucial values a person should have to succeed.
Mentoring can help
We asked respondents to tell us if they mentored others on engineering topics inside or outside the workplace, and it seems many do. Schott uses his experience to train new employees, to give seminars on engineering application and connect them with “essential professional organizations that provide standards (ISA, ASME, IEEE, etc.).” Another said he trains “every new guy, regarding plant operations and maintenance.”
Among other teaching-related efforts noted by survey respondents:
I have participated in SAE and ASME groups. I have had high school students come to work to see what engineers do. Inside the workplace, I spend 40% of my time teaching the new associates that come through the revolving door.
I try to educate production workers, supervisors, and sometimes the plant manager about caring for machinery the proper way. I also advise on cost-effective ways to care for the plant and solve production issues. I have attended lunches designed to interest high school girls in technology careers.
I mentor some of the younger engineers and even a few of the older ones on equipment design and troubleshooting (mixing equipment, large rotating equipment, welding, and materials handling equipment mostly).
I assist in chat rooms, one-on-one.
I have just begun briefly assisting a high school robotics club; it is a worthwhile experience. The high schools today have almost no budget for what we used to call “industrial arts.” I would like to find a program that introduces kids to the simple joy of making something useful with their own hands or on a CNC desktop mill!
Career advice: Beyond books
If someone you knew wanted to pursue an ME degree today, what would you advise? Our respondents had a range of answers. For those interested in an ME future, “I would say—go for it. It's still a good profession,” said Everett. Another suggested new graduates start with “a multinational firm rather than local, even if it offers you a job as a trainee.”
Schott said, “Find a school that provides more hands-on training and less strictly classroom theory. You will be asked to supervise technicians at some point. You must be familiar with their tasks and skills. (Check out how doctors handle this).” Graphical communications abilities are also critical; Kasar advised students to seek mastery on drawing-related subjects.
Other advice for those interested in mechanical engineering:
If you enjoy tearing things apart to see how they work or read technical books just for fun, you will probably still enjoy a career in engineering; just don't count on recognition or job security. This is truly unfortunate, it wasn't always like this. The field seemed to suffer as corporate planning became focused on shorter term profits. Some of the most satisfying jobs I have had have been with smaller companies where your contribution is much more obvious and appreciated. However, these firms tend to have the lowest pay, benefits, and security due to their small size.
Stay on an additional year or two to get a combined degree in engineering and business with a special emphasis on entrepreneurship in renewables/energy. A career at a major corporation will be a disappointment; I've worked for three Fortune 100 companies and have been very disappointed in their ability to foster talent and careers.
A small company will tend to provide a wide exposure to the full product development process from R&D to production and customer interaction. There is a tradeoff in the form of some stability; however, the professional and monetary rewards are worth it.
Target a path that is somehow tied to physical locations, for example building a bridge or siting a solar array.
Strongly encourage and advise they take additional industrial controls classes.
I would urge anyone to pursue a career in mechanical skills. Even if this person only gets a two year degree, the financial rewards are worth it. I would also advise someone I knew to spend time in the field or on the production floor talking to people and getting to know their needs.
First learn the trade by going in the field or undergoing thorough, practical shop floor experience. This is basic/foundation training without which you will never progress.
Good mechanical engineers are in short supply and have countless employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Get ready to do your homework. Keep an open mind and positive attitude as you gain experience.
Work through the struggles of learning so you acquire the understanding and confidence needed to solve problems. Don't give up and stay organized. Have fun along the way!
Is there a future for ME? “Definitely, yes.”
Management: 55% of respondents said they manage someone. Of those…
Source : Control Engineering
47% manage one to five people
20% manage 6 to 10 people
17% manage 11-25 people
13% manage more than 25
3% had some other response such as: it depends on the project.
ONLINE extra - TalkBack
Here's a discussion thread to begin (or add your own comments, observations, and advice)
using the TalkBack tool below: Which statement is more true and why? "Job satisfaction creates higher compensation" or "Higher compensation creates more job satisfaction."
- May 2008: Global manufacturing reality check - Control Engineering salary survey 2008 ; and
What is mechanical engineering, and what does it pay?
Control Engineering mechanical engineering survey respondents had a lot to say about what their career is or isn't at this point. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says:
“Mechanical engineers research, design, develop, manufacture, and test tools, engines, machines, and other mechanical devices. Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. Engineers in this discipline work on power-producing machines such as electric generators, internal combustion engines, and steam and gas turbines. They also work on power-using machines such as refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment, machine tools, material-handling systems, elevators and escalators, industrial production equipment, and robots used in manufacturing.
Some mechanical engineers design tools that other engineers need for their work. In addition, mechanical engineers work in manufacturing or agriculture production, maintenance, or technical sales; many become administrators or managers.”
Mean annual wage is $78,200, BLS says, translating into $37.59 per hour. Top paying industries for the occupation are oil and gas extraction, with a $93,980 annual mean wage, followed by computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing at $90,980. www.bls.gov/oco/ocos027.htm
Engineering specialty: mechanical engineers are #2
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, says that in 2008, engineers held about 1.6 million jobs, and mechanical engineering, as a specialty, was second most numerous. Below are the top 10 types of engineers in the U.S.
Civil engineers 278,400
Mechanical engineers 238,700
Industrial engineers 214,800
Electrical engineers 157,800
Electronics engineers, except computer 143,700
Computer hardware engineers 74,700
Aerospace engineers 71,600
Environmental engineers 54,300
Chemical engineers 31,700
Health and safety engineers, except mining safety engineers and inspectors 25,700