Would a career in engineering suit me?
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Engineering offers good employment prospects, the opportunity to see tangible results from your hard work and healthy salaries. At the top of the earnings table, chartered engineers earn an average (median) salary of £63,000.
Do you have the right skills to be an engineer? And would the industry suit you and offer the lifestyle you'd like?
If you're considering a career as an engineer it helps to have the following.
- Reasonably good maths. You don't have to be a genius with numbers but engineers typically make calculations very frequently in their jobs. Maths will also play a big part in the qualifications you take, whether you plan to do a full-time engineering degree or combine work and study.
- An interest in the physical world and how things work. Curious about how tall buildings stay upright or how satellites get into space? Like to know how the gadgets in your home work? Or just enjoy studying physics? An interest in the material world will give you the motivation you need to work and study hard.
- A love of solving problems. A lot of an engineer's job typically involves solving problems. This can include creating a design that works in theory, getting it to work in practice and fixing problems when it is up and running. Do you enjoy troubleshooting errant technology for family and friends? Or sorting out problems when working on tasks in a team, such as how to finish a group exercise in class within the time allocated?
- Good communication and teamworking skills. Few engineers work in isolation – you need to be able to interact with fellow engineers and with other colleagues, with suppliers, with clients and with staff from other organisations who are working on the same project as you. Can you work as part of a team? Are you able to communicate clearly face-to-face and in writing – and to listen and respond to what others have to say?
- An interest in technology and new developments. To design, create or fix as an engineer, you'll need up-to-date technical knowledge. Of course, you're not expected to have this before you start training, but if there's an area of technology that interests you and you like to follow, that's a good indication that you'll be motivated to do so in your career. Are you interested in staying up-to-date about developments in smartphone technology, computing, aviation or F1, for instance? If you don’t do so currently, do you think it’s something you might enjoy?
Many engineering jobs are in private sector businesses, where the ultimate aim is to make money. You are likely to be surrounded by fellow engineers who enjoy engineering for its own sake and are motivated by designing and improving products and services. However, you'll need to accept that financial realities will take priority over developing the best possible technical solution.
Some engineers work in the public sector, for example in defence technology roles. As a public sector engineer you'll have to balance creating effective solutions with spending taxpayers’ money wisely, so again you might need to let go of your 'perfect' technical solution in order to pursue one that is more cost-effective.
As an engineer you'll be likely to work typical office hours as a minimum, quite possibly with some overtime and travel on top. However, you're unlikely to encounter the long-hours culture often found in investment banks and City law firms, where 12-hour days and even all-night working are common.
A survey of engineers registered with the Engineering Council found that the average (mean) number of hours worked each week by those who responded was 44. That's equivalent to working 8.00 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday with a 42-minute lunch break. These findings are similar to the results of a survey conducted by TARGETjobs (our graduate careers website) in 2013, in which most graduate engineers we spoke to reported working between 36 and 45 hours a week.
Lots of engineers need to work longer hours when deadlines are approaching. However, quite a few engineering companies have flexitime policies, so you might be able to get this time back when it is quieter.
In some roles you might be expected to do shift work – for example, if your job involves helping to upgrade a railway, quite a lot of this work will need to be done at night when the trains aren't running. If you work in manufacturing for a company with a 24-hour operation, you may need to provide support at night.
On top of your working hours you will need to factor in time for learning and development, especially in your first few years in the job. If you join a higher apprenticeship programme you are likely to have a day off work a week to attend college or university, but you'll need to do further study at home in your own time. If you start work as a graduate it's likely that your employer will encourage you to work towards gaining professional qualifications, which again will probably involve some study in your own time.
Some engineers travel a lot as part of their jobs; others don't. And different engineers have different opinions as to whether travel is a good thing or a bad thing.
If you work in an area such as construction, you'll need to travel regularly to the relevant construction sites – you might even need to be there every day. You may well end up working on projects based in a different part of the country to where you live – or even a different part of the world. So expect some stays away from home or long commutes.
In contrast, if you work in a research and development role you might spend most of your time in the same location, with perhaps a few days away now and then for conferences or training.
A 2013 survey by the Engineering Council asked its members whether they agreed with the statement 'I am satisfied with being an engineer/technician’; 80% agreed and only 6% disagreed. Again, this ties in with the findings in TARGETjobs' survey, which found that the majority of graduates we spoke to expected to stay in engineering long term and had found working life to be as they expected or even better.
When asked what they like about their jobs, engineers typically highlight enjoying the technical challenges, seeing the results of their hard work, being able to use what they learned at university, solving problems and doing something that benefits society.
They don't always enjoy the paperwork, and some find that there's more time sat at a computer or less technical work than they were expecting. Some engineers also comment that they aren't based in particularly desirable locations, or that they could earn more money in a different industry. However, others feel that earning a really high salary isn't everything and that they have a decent wage combined with interesting work and a good work/life balance. A graduate engineer, for example, might typically earn between £18,000 and £33,000 in their first job after university.