Engineering remains one of the best career choices for young people. It offers excellent job prospects for postgraduates and challenging yet incredibly rewarding roles that enable employees to use math, science, critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork on some of the most exciting, tech-driven projects.

However, before you commit fully to a career in engineering, there are a few things you should know about the industry and what to expect if you first want to earn a degree in a specific discipline and then start gaining vital work experience. Here are 10 things that engineers should know before diving in.

The industry is growing, but skills shortages persist.

This is arguably the perfect time to enter the engineering and construction industry. A recent report by Deloitte found that there are several factors driving “strong growth”, including a surge in spending, which hit a record high in 2021, and the fact that 91% of companies have either a “somewhat” or “very positive” business outlook in the long term. The key to this is robust growth in both the non-residential and residential segments.

However, while growth is back on the agenda for companies after a brief lull during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are struggling with skills shortages. A lack of qualified candidates is an ongoing issue that could hit productivity and efficiency, so companies will be looking to source high-quality workers with the right qualifications to fill important roles. This bodes well for you if you have your sights set on securing a rewarding, lucrative role after earning a master’s degree.

Deloitte believes that engineering is “poised to capture growth opportunities”, which suggests that the industry is likely to thrive during the next decade. These opportunities are generally linked to cutting-edge technology such as data analytics – the science of analyzing raw data to find trends – which companies want to leverage to improve the safety, quality and efficiency of engineering projects.

The four main engineering disciplines

Engineering is defined as the design and building of structures and machines using scientific principles, and it covers a wide range of disciplines, subdivisions and roles. The industry is generally broken down into several four different sectors. These are:

  • Mechanical engineering – Manufacturing mechanical systems using physics, math and science.
  • Chemical engineering – Converting raw materials and chemicals into useful products.
  • Civil engineering – Designing and constructing structures such as bridges that serve the public.
  • Electrical engineering – Designing and applying electricity for power generation.

Within these branches of engineering are further subdisciplines. In chemical engineering, for example, there are branches of biomolecular engineering and materials engineering. The industry is incredibly diverse and offers vast potential for specializations in different roles, which can often be used in a range of other industries.

As Lockheed Martin, one of the largest employers of engineers in the US, notes, engineering is much more than “just math and science”. Engineers use expertise, skills and experience to visualize, design, build, test and maintain things that are central to everyday life and often are critical for saving lives and keeping people safe. It is no wonder that Lockheed Martin has a quiz on its site that allows users to find out exactly “what type of engineer” they should be.

You will need a bachelor’s degree 

Engineering is an industry in which it’s difficult to gain employment without first earning a bachelor’s degree. If you have just graduated high school, or expect to in the future, then you should start looking at accredited institutions where you can study for a degree in engineering. After earning a degree, you will also need to pass a national exam and attain a license if your job or company is public facing.

If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree and have two years of work experience in this industry, then you can really take your career to the next level by studying for an engineer management master degree at a leading online university. This is an ideal route to a more rewarding, lucrative role if you are currently employed in a branch of engineering, computer science or physics as there are three convenient start dates and everything can be completed 100% online.

Engineering management will allow you to use all of the technical skills and problem-solving capabilities you demonstrate on a day-to-day basis in your current engineering role and combine them with the organizational and administrative aspects of management. By combining these two disciplines, you will be able to take the lead and oversee exciting and complex projects. This role is often viewed as a natural next step for workers with ambitions to become leaders and managers.

STEM skills will come in handy

In addition to raw qualifications, budding engineers should also try to develop their math and science skills across the board. Subjects that are closely linked in engineering include chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry and calculus. These all come under the umbrella of STEM skills, which is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

While most employers value STEM skills, they are particularly sought after in engineering. Again, each of the STEM branches can be broken down into further skills. For example, critical thinking and problem solving fall under the STEM umbrella and are very important for this career. That’s because engineers will need to apply critical thinking regularly to analyze data sets and make logical conclusions. Working through problems quickly and efficiently is also incredibly valuable in a variety of engineering roles.

There are many engineering-specific STEM skills that will also be useful, such as learning engineering principles rooted in geometry, chemistry and physics and data analysis, which requires you to interpret the meaning of data to make logical conclusions and decisions. Research skills, memory, openness to feedback and tech literacy will also be beneficial for you when you enter the engineering industry.

You can improve your STEM skills by joining a club related to some of the core STEM subjects, either at school or online. Taking online courses and watching video content can also help you to get to grips with complex concepts and demonstrate your abilities. Experts also recommend finding a mentor if you want guidance on a STEM subject such as engineering. This might be useful for you right now as you will have someone to talk to about your potential career path in engineering.

In the UK, key figures within the industry are urging more people to take STEM qualifications to address future skills shortages driven by climate change. EngineeringUK head of environmental sustainability Mike Hardisty notes: “More needs to be done to encourage and enable young people across the UK to take up STEM-based qualifications with a view to tackling the climate crisis – if we don’t have enough young people studying chemistry and physics now, for example, it could lead to a shortage of electrical and chemical engineers, which means we will not have the necessary skills in the future workforce.”

Salaries for experienced engineers top $100,000

Engineering is a lucrative field, with many jobs commanding in excess of $100,000. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the median annual wage in the US now stands at $100,640, though pay rates differ depending on experience, expertise and other factors such as job location. The mean entry-level salary is lower, but new employees in aerospace engineering can still expect to earn around $86,000 after earning a degree, while chemical engineers can expect to earn around $69,000.

Research by LeapScholar shows that San Francisco and New York are the cities where engineers earn the most, but there is strong demand across the country, with a fairly even salary distribution. In Louisiana, for example, engineers still receive salaries of more than $94,000. The highest-paying fields are now in computer science and computer information systems, which have seen 30% and 26% growth in salaries, respectively, in recent years.

LeapScholar’s data also highlights the importance of earning a bachelor’s degree and then potentially a master’s in engineering management. A degree vastly increases your earning potential, adding around 24% to your pay packet when compared to candidates with only a diploma or certificate. A master’s degree boosts pay even more, by around 29% on average compared to just a bachelor’s degree.

However, an engineer’s salary is also dependent on experience. Engineers with between two and five years of experience in the industry can command a 32% higher salary than junior and entry-level employees. There is another jump for professionals with five or more years of experience, who can earn around 36% more than counterparts with less than five years of experience. Ten years of working experience is another milestone, and these workers can expect a 15% hike. Finally, engineers can expect a further 15% increase after 15 years.

Creating a portfolio can boost your job prospects

There’s no better way to showcase your expertise and experience in engineering than presenting a portfolio of your work to a prospective new employer or client. While you need qualifications to apply for certain roles, a portfolio can give you an edge in the interview phase. A portfolio in engineering is a visual representation of the projects you have completed. If you work in civil engineering, this will probably feature design concepts of physical structures. If you work in mechanical engineering, you could show images of robotics and the story behind the design process.

It is important to note here that you can start building your engineering portfolio while completing a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. It can feature both academic and personal projects, as well as the work you complete during your career after you graduate. Employers like to see students document their projects each semester as they will have something to reference your work when they consider accepting you for an internship or entry-level job.

Engineering experts recommend creating a portfolio that is simple and easy to navigate. You don’t want to drown a potential client in a sea of complex information. You should also try to use visuals and text to tell a story and show your personality. This can help you to build your own personal brand through your work, which can be key to standing out from other applicants.

You will need to upskill during your career

Engineers won’t have the luxury of earning qualifications and then resting on their laurels, especially if they want to continue securing new roles. While experience is one of the main differentiators in terms of pay rates, employees will also be expected to upskill regularly to stay ahead of the curve and maintain employability.

A study by LinkedIn found half of the companies in engineering expect automation to change the scope and scale of their respective workforces and that new tech on the whole will require them to create new roles, particularly ‘productivity-enhancing’ ones. LinkedIn also noted that many of the most in-demand jobs of 2050 are unlikely to exist at the moment.

LeapScholar’s list of ‘critical skills’ for an engineer highlights how the industry has changed during the last 10 to 20 years alone. A few of the most sought-after skills at the moment are:

  • Encryption
  • Cyber security
  • Microsoft Azure
  • DevOps
  • Cloud services and infrastructure
  • Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD)
  • Software development

All of these skills are linked to IT, which highlights how tech and computer software are shaping even traditional jobs in civil and electrical engineering. Applicants for roles need to be more than just computer literate – they need to have specific skills related to things such as programming and cloud computing. The good news is that taking time to complete courses and learn these skills will allow you to apply for more roles and potentially earn much more money.

You will need to be resourceful and open to feedback

If you are looking to enter the engineering industry for the first time, you should be aware that the work dynamic is different from an office. When you are given a task by a manager, they expect you to complete it and then seek work out on your own, either by going back to the manager or someone else who can outline the next steps you should take on a project. It is considered a faux pas in engineering to simply complete work at your work desk and then expect someone else to come to you to offer more work.

Engineers are busy, resourceful and self-starters who actively want to solve problems and complete tasks efficiently. Managers don’t expect to babysit you, which will be beneficial for you in the long term as you will take on more responsibility and have more flexibility in how you approach projects. However, you are also expected to take feedback and criticism on board without pushback as the projects you are working on will be constantly under review by other workers.

Statistics are used daily

Math and science are integral to engineering, so it’s perhaps not a great surprise that you will be using statistics every day on the job to assess projects and validate decisions. One experienced engineering blogger bemoaned the lack of statistics-based courses in his undergraduate education. It might be a good idea, then, to seek out a bachelor’s degree that gives you an academic grounding in statistics. You will also be able to complete a master’s degree afterwards that specializes in certain aspects of statistics, such as data analytics.

After securing a role in the industry, you can expect to use statistics to complete tasks such as validating test methods, comparing two data sets to draw logical conclusions, and assessing data sets to determine whether they are right for the project at hand. The focus on raw stats is a testament to how being ‘detail-oriented’ is critical to engineering. You can’t base your work on hunches or feelings. You will need to test, experiment, inspect and analyze everything to make sure that it is right for a project.

You will need to follow strict methodologies

Don’t confuse being resourceful and taking on work yourself as a sign that you won’t have to follow any sort of directions or plans. Engineering has very strict procedures due to legal and quality requirements, so you will have to complete tests and tasks based on a specific methodology. Not following these directions can set the project back weeks or even months.

A popular engineering blogger once told the story of how a fellow worker caused a six-week delay to a project after he completed a destructive test first instead of the non-destructive test. The former destroyed some of the materials required for the non-destructive test, which caused a major delay. Simple mistakes can be very costly for everyone involved. It’s for this reason that many engineers follow a mantra of ‘justifying everything’. You must make sure that you are doing everything right the first time even if you are working alone.

Final thoughts

Now that you know a bit more about what engineering is all about, you can start planning your next move. If you are a younger student, getting enrolled for a bachelor’s degree is probably the best path forward, while for more experienced engineers, earning a master’s degree is preferable. Either way, you can be sure that as advanced tech unlocks exciting new jobs, engineering will be the driving force behind the work of tomorrow.