What Can You Do with an Engineering Major?


If you're looking for a job where you can help people, use your science and math skills, and be in demand for decades to come, a career in engineering is tough to beat.

"Engineers design and build products that really matter," says Leslie Collins, Executive Director of the National Engineers Week Foundation. "Engineering is sort of where science, math, and technology come together to make real things."

Engineering is a broad field covering a huge range of jobs. With thousands of engineers retiring every year and technological advances appearing every day, it’s no surprise there is a huge demand for new engineers. “This is going to be a very exciting growth area for the next several years,” says Aileen Walter, Vice President of University Programs at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

Experts predict some engineering fields will need more fresh faces than others. They expect a large number of opportunities for aerospace engineers and engineers focused on transportation and health care. Environmentalism is sure to drive the demand as well. Companies are looking for engineers to design green buildings and bridges, and engineers will play a big part in developing alternative energy. But Collins says engineers do more than design and build things; they use their analytical and technical skills on the job too. Some engineers end up running companies or working as patent lawyers.

If you’re interested in engineering but don’t know what kind of engineer you want to be, that’s okay. In most college engineering programs, all students take the same foundational classes for the first two years anyway. Students can also hone their skills outside of class through internships, cooperative education, extracurricular activities, and/or engineering events. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, for example, has college teams competing to design and build the best solar-powered house. Dozens of colleges also have chapters of Engineers without Borders, a nonprofit organization that spearheads projects like improving water systems in developing countries.

Walter says aspiring engineers should take classes like algebra, calculus, and physics in high school. She also suggests asking different types of engineers about their work and how they prepared for their jobs. (College and university career and academic advising centers are usually very helpful arranging informational interviews!)

Do you want to make a significant impact on the world? You can as an engineer. Just ask these professionals.

Kevin Smith, Petroleum Engineering

At the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Smith began exploring petroleum engineering because it offered a lot of opportunities to get work experience while he was still in college. During his junior year, he got an internship at the Tulsa office of Cimarex Energy, an oil and gas firm that focuses on operations in Texas, Oklahoma, and the Gulf Coast. He worked as an intern there until he graduated in 2007, when they offered him a full-time job.

Smith says his college course work taught him the skills he now uses every day as a professional. At Cimarex, he works on oil excavation projects, determining how long it would take and how much it would cost to get oil and gas out of the ground, as well as figuring out how the company could increase its potential for production. As a petroleum engineering major, he studied all those things.

In June 2010, he transferred to the Cimarex headquarters in Denver, Colorado. The oil business is changing, and jobs are opening up all over the country as companies look for new sources of oil and gas. Now Smith examines the profitability of expanding to new areas.

While Smith’s job generally revolves around engineering, he’s also partly responsible for deciding where Cimarex will invest millions of dollars, yet he says he doesn’t “sit in [his] office all day and crunch a bunch of mathematical formulas.”

Despite the current debate surrounding U.S. oil consumption, Smith is confident he’ll always have work. Many new sources of natural gas have opened up over the last several years, and companies still need to extract it. “You never know where technological advances are going to go,” he says.

Kristerpher Henderson, Computer Engineering

Henderson worked with computers long before college—building websites, assembling computers from spare parts, and troubleshooting problems. Studying computer engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made perfect sense.

Drexel’s curriculum covered a lot of skills he had already, Henderson says. But he also learned a lot of new things, including computer programming and the mechanics behind electricity.

With its cooperative education program, Drexel requires students to spend six-month cycles working full time in their fields, so Henderson graduated with years of work experience. As a junior, he started working at PJM Interconnection, which transmits and sells electricity in 13 states. “They literally handed me signing papers [for a full-time position] after six months,” says Henderson, who graduated in 2007 and still works as an information technology specialist and systems administrator at PJM’s office in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Henderson has to know how different types of operating systems work. If a piece of equipment breaks or there’s a software problem, it is his responsibility to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. He says the programming skills he learned in college are a big help because they give him a better understanding of how each system functions.

With a team of 12 other engineers, Henderson’s job is keeping all of PJM’s computer systems running smoothly. “We’re the first line of defense,” he says.

Kera Vant, Biomedical Engineering

Going into college, Vant had to choose: architectural or biomedical engineering. Her mother worked as an X-ray technician, so Vant was initially drawn to medical school when she thought about life after high school. Then she thought about how much she enjoyed the technical drafting classes at her high school in Wisconsin and eventually decided to go with architectural engineering.

While looking for schools with architectural engineering programs, she stumbled upon the biomedical engineering program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That changed everything. Both the school and the biomed program just seemed to fit. After she graduated from MSOE in 2000, she got a job as a software test engineer, where she tested machines that analyze blood.

For the past five years, she’s worked at Minnetronix, Inc., a company in St. Paul, Minnesota, that designs and manufactures medical devices. Vant is a project lead, which means she is in charge of teams of engineers developing different devices. She also works with customers to make sure each project is done on time and within its budget. The equipment she’s worked on includes infusion pumps that push fluids into patients over a long period of time and heart-lung machines that keep patients alive when their hearts have to be stopped during surgery.

At MSOE, Vant learned how to write software and design electrical circuits, but she also took classes in biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. (She received a master’s degree in business administration in 2007 as well.) She says her skill set has evolved over the years, especially now that she supervises other engineers.

“It’s the problem-solving skill that you develop, and, in my level, to talk to the electrical engineers and the mechanical engineers and be able to understand what they’re telling me,” Vant says.

Ryan Forman, Mechanical Engineering

Even as a little boy, Forman knew he wanted to work with cars. “I was interested in looking at something tangible and holding it in my hands, knowing, ‘If I do this, this will happen,’” he explains. That led Forman to mechanical engineering. He says it’s a great major for anyone who wants to learn how things work. Forman also had a concentration in bioengineering applications, where he learned about how the human body reacts in a car crash.

He attended Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, because it had a great reputation for automotive engineering. Plus, the school’s co-op program coordinates three-month work cycles, so students can work full time at several different companies in their fields and gain plenty of real-world experience.

Forman got his first engineering job after graduating in 2005 and now works in the automotive division of Recticel, a company that makes polyurethane foam products. At their office in Clarkston, Michigan, Forman collaborates with other engineers to make sure products are designed and made the way customers want them. He works primarily on dashboard panels, interior door panels, and similar parts.

Forman’s job is all about figuring out how to manufacture high-quality products—and he has to make sure they last! Recticel runs tests to see if the parts he designs can withstand extreme heat and cold or if a car’s airbag will deploy correctly in a crash. “At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, it’s all on me,” he says.

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