4 Major Areas of Engineering That Offer a Variety of Career Paths
For anybody who aspires to make a lasting and practical difference in the world, engineering provides a lot of truly appealing directions to go in. In fact, there are potentially hundreds of different ways to specialize within the field. That's because each major branch of engineering holds many subdisciplines. And a lot of engineers and other engineering professionals have skill sets drawn from a combination of different specialties.
By some estimates, over two million engineers are actively working within the U.S.* They are just the latest contributors to a profession that has a long history of designing, developing, analyzing, and building solutions that improve people's quality of life.
Their contributions are staggering and almost too numerous to list: everything from safe drinking water to modern transportation to the distribution of electricity to refrigeration to the Internet to smartphones to space exploration. The achievements simply go on and on.
And so do the career possibilities. Even at the most basic level, you have the option of becoming either a fully fledged professional engineer or an engineering technician who plays an important assisting role.
In general, becoming a professional engineer requires a specialized bachelor's degree, followed by four years as an engineering intern and the successful completion of a state licensing exam. In contrast, engineering technicians usually only need about two years of post-secondary education—and sometimes even less.
Here is how the four main branches of engineering break down:
1. Electrical and Electronics Engineering
In this area of the field, the focus is on the design, development, and testing of devices and systems that use electricity. That can, of course, include a huge range of items. Computers, TVs, telecommunications equipment, machines for power generation, GPS navigation devices, medical monitoring tools, and broadcasting equipment are merely a few prominent examples.
As new technologies emerge, engineers and technicians in this category are often at the forefront of applying them to help solve interesting problems. Plus, they tend to make very good money. For example, in 2016, the average and top-end salaries in the U.S. were:**
- Electrical engineers—$98,620 / $149,040 or more
- Electronics engineers—$103,760 / $155,330 or more
- Computer hardware engineers—$118,700 / $172,010 or more
- Electrical and electronics engineering technicians—$62,950 / $91,640 or more
2. Mechanical Engineering
Many engineers consider this to be the largest branch of the profession. Its emphasis is on applying the principles of thermal energy, as well as structural and motion mechanics, to create and test different kinds of tools, devices, and machines. Examples include gas turbines, cooling systems, car and airplane engines, renewable energy systems, boat motors, and biomedical systems.
And some engineers and technicians have both mechanical and electrical engineering skills. That gives them the versatility to work in the field of mechatronics, which concerns the development and operation of automated systems like robotics and unmanned aerial or submersible machines.
In 2016, the average and top-end annual earnings for U.S. professionals in this area were:**
- Mechanical engineers—$89,800 / $131,350 or more
- Mechanical engineering technicians—$57,180 / $82,810 or more
- Electro-mechanical technicians—$57,860 / $85,440 or more
3. Civil Engineering
Large building and infrastructure projects are the primary focus for engineers in this area. The diversity of structures and systems that they can help design, construct, or maintain is astonishing. For example, just imagine a few of the things we wouldn't have without their talents: roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, dams, water and sewage treatment plants, skyscrapers, mining facilities, and industrial manufacturing centers.
That's why civil engineers are in big demand. Throughout America, many of the structures listed above are deteriorating because of age. They need to be replaced, or at least receive major upgrades. As a result, the employment of U.S. civil engineers is expected to rise by 8.4 percent between 2014 and 2024.***
The average salary for an American civil engineer was $89,730 in 2016, but the highest-earners enjoyed salaries of over $132,880. For civil engineering technicians, the average annual pay was $52,120, with some making more than $77,500.**
4. Chemical Engineering
Don't let the title of this category fool you. Chemical engineers are involved in designing and producing a lot more than you might think. This branch of engineering is incredibly broad. It's all about applying the principles of physics, biology, and chemistry to problems that can be solved through the creation of new substances, materials, or biosystems. Positive impacts are often achieved in areas like paper and textile manufacturing, plastics, petroleum, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and environmental and natural resource preservation.
Average yearly pay for U.S. chemical engineers was $105,420 in 2016, and top-end earners made over $158,800. For chemical technicians, the average salary was $49,770, and the highest pay was over $76,930.**
*National Society of Professional Engineers, website last visited on February 16, 2015.
**Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on September 15, 2017.
***Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last visited on February 25, 2016.