What types of jobs and employers are there in engineering?
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Engineers come in many varieties and work for a huge range of different employers. There’s a job for you whether you want to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, keep people around the world supplied with fresh water and sanitation, build fabulous bridges or just make your favourite mode of transport go even faster.
Practically everything man-made has had some input from engineers in terms of its design and creation – and often in its maintenance and improvement too. The modern world couldn’t function without them. Ready to become indispensable?
There are also many different levels of engineer, so there’s a place for you whether you love academia and are already considering a PhD or if you want to leave full-time education and start working as soon as possible.
Engineering is a vast field, so most engineers specialise in a particular knowledge area, also known as a discipline.
Most engineering degrees focus on one particular discipline (though there are some that let you try a bit of everything) and graduate recruiters typically specify which engineering degree disciplines they accept. Higher apprenticeships usually start to channel you into a particular discipline. So you need to be aware of the options before you apply for university or for school leaver programmes.
These are some of the most common disciplines.
- Mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineers understand how forces act on solid objects, how liquids and gases behave, and how energy is converted from one form to another. Mechanical engineers use this knowledge to design machines that can cope with the forces they are placed under and to develop systems such as pumps, fans, turbines and power plants.
- Civil engineering. Civil engineers understand how to design, construct and maintain the man-made parts of our environment. These include buildings, bridges, roads, railways, dams, tunnels and airports. Civil engineers need to understand how forces act on objects and how fluids behave, including how this relates to geology.
- Electrical engineering. Electrical engineers understand how electricity works and how to generate and use it. They might be involved in generating electricity from renewable resources, working in a traditional power station, helping to electrify a railway line or providing a building with heating and power, among other job options.
- Electronic engineering. Electronic engineers understand how electronic components can be used in electrical circuits to affect their behaviour. Sophisticated circuits are useful in areas such as communication, navigation, medical technology and manufacturing technology.
- Chemical engineering. Chemical engineers understand both how chemicals react to form new substances and how the facilities work that perform these reactions on an industrial scale. These facilities produce a vast array of everyday products, including food, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, plastics and petrol.
Within each engineering discipline there are various job roles to choose from. In practice some jobs will involve doing more than one of these, and some graduate schemes or apprenticeships may give you the chance to try out different options to see what suits you.
Here are some of the main roles.
- Research and development – carrying out original research into areas that haven’t been investigated before.
- Design engineering – working on an engineering project before construction/manufacturing begins, to make sure that there is a detailed, practical design to work from.
- Project engineering/construction management – managing engineering or construction projects to make sure that they are completed on time, on budget, to the clients’ requirements and in line with safety legislation.
- Process engineering – analysing manufacturing processes and finding ways to make them safer and more efficient.
Engineers can also work in different industries. Most industries need engineers from a range of different disciplines for the different knowledge and skills that they bring.
To give a very simplified example, in rail engineering different engineers might be responsible for the following areas:
- mechanical engineers – trains
- electrical engineers – power distribution
- electronic engineers – signalling systems
- civil engineers – tracks, bridges and stations.
Key engineering industries include:
- Aeronautical (flight)
- Automotive (road vehicles)
- Built environment (buildings and infrastructure)
- Chemicals (manufacturing substances on a large scale)
- Fast-moving consumer goods (manufacturing items such as snack foods and cleaning products)
- Marine (ships)
- Materials and metals (developing new materials or improving existing ones)
- Utilities (covering water, sewerage, energy and telecoms)
Some engineers have NVQs; others have masters degrees or PhDs. You can join the industry at any level, and often have the chance to study for further qualifications once you’re in. Generally speaking the more senior you become the more opportunity you will have to take on management responsibilities and to be involved in finding novel ways of doing things.
Helping your employer make (or save) money
To succeed as an engineer you’ll need sound business sense. Most engineers work in the private sector, where the key goal is to make money. As an engineer you might help your employer to turn a profit by creating a product that clients will pay for, or by finding a more cost-effective way of doing so. If you work in the public sector, eg for the Ministry of Defence, you’ll still need to be aware of financial issues to ensure that the taxpayers’ money that is funding your projects is spent in the most effective way.