May brings more than Memorial Day and Mother's Day. It is also when a whole slew of college graduates throw their caps in the air and then cross their fingers in the hopes they can find a job.
While competition for jobs may be stiff -- the National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov, 2012) says more than 1.7 million bachelor's degrees were conferred in 2010-2011 alone -- there is one group of students that could have little problem landing a position right out of school. Those students are engineering majors, and within the field, mechanical engineering grads are some of the most coveted.
Mechanical engineering is a degree in demand
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (naceweb.org, 2012), employers expect to increase their new graduate hires by 13 percent in 2013 as compared to 2012. In particular, the association ranked mechanical engineering as number five on its list of most in-demand bachelor's degrees for its "Job Outlook 2013" survey.
In addition, outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. says engineering graduates, as a whole, should have no trouble finding a job. Its "2013 College Grad Outlook" report found they are likely to have some of the shortest post-graduation job searches with some students perhaps having multiple job offers before they even get their diploma.
"Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest and most versatile of the engineering professions, because it encompasses a wide variety of specialty careers including medicine, automotive, energy and aerospace," said Shekhar Chandrashekhar, managing director of outreach programs at ASME, the industry association founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
A career with many dimensions
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012) defines mechanical engineers as those who "research, design, develop, build, and test mechanical devices, including tools, engines, and machines."
Those working in the field say mechanical engineers often wear many hats.
Erik Olson is a mechanical engineer who works in the automotive industry and is a project manager for Bohle Machine Tools, Inc.
"Within the automotive field, an engineer is less an engineer and more a project manager," explains Olson. "You cannot escape having good manners, speaking clearly in front of a group, and being able to divorce yourself from your emotions when trying to make a judgment call or while meeting with a customer with a controversial subject."
For Olson, that was one of the surprising aspects of working as an engineer -- it wasn't the introverted field he envisioned. However, he says project management doesn't monopolize all his time.
"You do get to do some fun engineering work," he says, "where you sit down with a piece of paper, sketch a design, make some calculations and determine with what confidence the device will work."
Trends in mechanical engineering
Mechanical engineers have skills that can prove useful in various professional settings. According to the BLS (bls.gov/oes, 2013), they held a total of 252,540 jobs in May 2012. The highest-employing industries were:
- Architectural, Engineering and Related Services: 54,770
- Scientific Research and Development Services: 14,470
- Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing: 12,940
- Federal Executive Branch: 11,820
- Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing: 10,980
"There are several growth areas in mechanical engineering," says Chandrashekhar, "including transportation engineering, biomedical engineering, microchip manufacturing, nano engineering and humanitarian engineering."
Recent college grads with degrees in mechanical engineering may not only have a number of job options, they can also look forward to some of the best average starting salaries. The April 2013 "Salary Survey" published by NACE placed mechanical engineering sixth on its list of the top-paying majors for 2012-2013 bachelor's degree graduates, with an average starting salary of $64,000.
The future of mechanical engineering
Although there are no guarantees regarding what the job market will be like in four or five years when today's freshmen graduate, mechanical engineering degrees could be a hot commodity well into the future.
"Engineers are natural problem solvers and right now there's no shortage of real world challenges to address," says Chandrashekhar. "Mechanical engineers are helping to make people's lives better in the areas of alternative energy, nano and bio technology."
For those considering a career in the field, Olson suggests it is best suited to those who enjoy critical thinking and have attention to detail.
"Be sure that what you like doing is solving problems, big or little," he says. "Realize that many of the solutions you will deal with are going to be on the small and very, very small end of the scale."
However, just because engineers are focused on small details doesn't mean they can't make a big impact.
"Many of our engineers tell us they feel deep satisfaction in knowing that something they helped develop is having an impact on society," says Chandrashekhar. "As we like to say at ASME: there are dreamers, there are doers and then there are both. We call those people engineers."
Bachelor's degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by race/ethnicity and sex of student: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2010-11, Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2012
"Graduates Continue to Enjoy Better Job Opportunities," 2013 College Grad Outlook, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc, March 27, 2013
"Job Outlook 2013: Hiring Up 13 Percent, Degrees in Demand," NACE, September 26, 2012
"Mechanical Engineers," May 2012 Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2013
"Mechanical Engineers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 7, 2012
"Salary Survey: Engineering Dominates List of Top-Paying Majors," NACE, April 3, 2013