Engineering Career Field Structure
The engineering industry comprises many fields of study, all employing unique and sometimes similar methods of science to reach practical solutions to problems and questions in all industries. There are five basic areas of study in which engineers in all branches of the industry can specialize: research, development, application, management, and maintenance. While an engineer may work exclusively in one of these areas, it is more common for their knowledge and duties to overlap. For example, research and development are commonly linked and called R&D. Those working in the application side of a project may often find themselves making maintenance calls.
All engineering projects begin with research. The type and scope of research will be different in each branch of engineering, but generally, once a goal has been set by an industry or institution and brought to the engineers, they set out to find possible ways to solve it. This could entail visiting a manufacturing plant to get a first-hand understanding of an industrial problem. It could entail testing different materials for a specific application. It could also require the engineer to struggle over mathematical or computer applications, as well as spend long hours in a laboratory mixing chemicals. The scope of research is limitless. Some research engineers work independently, seeking to find new principles and processes for a specific branch of engineering.
Closely tied to research is development. Development entails applying the results of a research project to a specific function. Since there may be more than one way of doing this, a development team must perform tests and studies to find the best way. A research engineer may have come up with several useable materials for a part on an airplane, but it is up to the development team to figure out which of those materials works best in the big picture. For example, a certain material might be chosen for an exterior part on a plane. It works fine, it’s durable and weather resistant; however, a development team might discover the material reacts negatively to the exhaust of the engines, or that at certain altitudes and speeds it reacts differently than when on the ground. With these observations made, the development team will reject the material and look for one that is more stable under these types of stresses.
With the research and development complete, the real fun begins—project application. Engineers use the data from the R&D studies and apply them to the design and production of materials, machines, methods, or to whatever the ultimate goal is. For example, a team of civil engineers, after finding the best materials and location for building a bridge in Alaska, will then set out to design and build the bridge. A team of industrial engineers, having studied an outdated method of production at a manufacturing plant and having researched newer methods specific to that type of manufacturing, will begin implementing the new method and train plant employees.
A management engineer, who earlier may have been part of the R&D or application team, will be responsible for keeping the developed idea working. They study their work as it was intended to function—whether that be machinery, a drawbridge, or a carving knife—and look for ways to improve on it in the future. If a team of electrical engineers designs a new system of electronic circuits for a home entertainment system, they may find that once everything is in place and the system has been manufactured that there are certain minor aspects that can be improved. While the development team is supposed to have found these possible flaws before production, it is almost impossible to catch every possible little glitch. Engineers consider this learning from experience and will improve the design in the future.
Maintenance, the final stage in an engineering project, is concerned with the project’s upkeep. A team of mechanical engineers, for example, may have designed a machine to package coffee in tin containers. The engineers visit the plant, set it up, and go home with everyone satisfied. Two months later, a maintenance engineer, who was likely involved in the application process, is called back to the plant to fix a problem in the system—the coffee keeps overflowing, causing waste. These sorts of maintenance calls are fairly common, as it takes a while with any new project to work out the bugs. Again they learn from experience, and similar systems in the future will probably not have the same problem.
Engineers in a particular industry, say in nuclear engineering, will of course, be trained in nuclear engineering, but they will also have to understand many basic to complex principles of other branches of engineering. Depending on their specific studies, the nuclear engineers may need understanding of environmental, chemical, aerospace, mechanical, electrical, industrial, materials, naval, or computer engineering.
Professional Engineer, or PE, is a special title like Ph.D., which indicates that the engineer has completed education and experience requirements and passed tough exams. PEs are under legal responsibility for their engineering work and are bound by an ethics code to protect the public health and safety. PEs have graduated from an accredited engineering program, have had at least four years experience under a licensed PE, and they have passed the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PPE) exam.
There were approximately 1.4 million engineers in the United States in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More than 72 percent worked as electrical and electronics, civil, mechanical, industrial (including health and safety), aerospace, and computer hardware engineers. Forty percent of all engineers worked in manufacturing and 27 percent worked in the professional, scientific, and technical service industry.
Since engineering is such a broad field, there are literally thousands of different places you can find employment, depending on your specialty. Engineers are needed in virtually every field. Whether you want to work for a small company or a large firm, indoors or outdoors, nine to five or the graveyard shift, there are engineering careers available for you. You can find your engineering career at a desk behind a computer with regular hours not far from your home; or you may find your engineering career in the workshop with a socket set in one hand, a computer-aided calibrator in the other, and a little grease under your nails; or you may find your engineering career in the dank sewers of a major city as you plan a more effective method of waste management.
As a mechanical, automobile, chemical, industrial, plastics, or robotics engineer you may find employment with one of the Big Three U.S. automobile makers, as well as any of the thousands of private manufacturing companies. As an aeronautical or aerospace engineer you will almost certainly try to land a job at NASA or a major commercial firm like Boeing. Civil engineers can find jobs with local and city governments, with construction firms, with the military or federal government, and even large corporations. The petroleum and chemical engineer can seek jobs, naturally, with petroleum and gas companies like BP, Texaco, and ExxonMobil Corporation, or they can look for jobs with major chemical companies like Dow Chemical, Eastman Chemical Company, or DuPont. Environmental and biological engineers will have no problem finding employment at the Environmental Protection Agency, industry, or consulting firms. Companies producing high-tech equipment for commercial and industrial use look for skilled electrical engineers, as well as software, mechanical, materials, and plastics engineers.
Engineers are also employed by local, state, and the federal government—194,000 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some federal employers of engineers include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Interior, and Transportation.
New engineering fields are developing all the time, as are specialties. One of the most recent developments is genetic engineering, which involves the alteration and manipulation of the genes of living things.
Other possibilities for engineers can be found in academia as instructors or researchers.