Careers in Engineering
Engineering is the branch of science that relates to the design, building, use and maintenance of machines, engines and structures. It is a highly technical and scientific field. Those working in it need strong maths, numeracy and science skills, and often high-level qualifications. However, there are also lower-level technical jobs that have the job title of engineer, but do not need the same qualifications.
This page discusses the different types of engineering and technical roles available, and explains the broad skills and qualifications needed by engineers and technicians (the lower-level roles often called engineering jobs).
What is Engineering?
Engineering is a science—but a very practical, applied science.
Unlike the pure sciences like, say, physics, engineering is concerned with ‘doing’. It is the branch of science that deals in the design, building, use and maintenance of machines, engines, structures, and materials. We can think of engineers as the people who put science into practice in the world around us.
From the food on our plates, through to our clothes, houses and vehicles, where we work, and how we get there, engineers have a hand in almost every part of the built environment.
Engineering as a subject is generally not taught until higher education (university), because schools tend to focus more on the pure sciences, rather than applied. At school, future engineers tend to study maths and physics at advanced levels. Design technology is perhaps the closest subject to engineering that is available on most school curricula, certainly in the UK.
Choosing an Engineering Specialism
There are many different types of engineering and engineering roles.
They range from civil engineering through mechanical and electrical engineering to chemical engineering, with almost infinite specialisms in between.
The more general branches of engineering include:
Civil engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the building of roads, bridges, ports, dams, pipelines and other structures. The sub-discipline of structural engineering deals in the materials and structures that underpin buildings.
Structural engineers in action
You may come across the work of structural engineers if you have any major building work done on your house. They are the ones who will advise how much steel and what strength is needed to hold up a roof, or how deep and strong the foundations need to be to take the weight of the planned structure.
Chemical engineering deals in the technologies that turn raw materials into products like glue, paint, and plastics. Chemical engineers develop both the products themselves, and the processes to make them.
Mechanical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with engines and machines: their design, build, testing and repairing.
Electrical engineering is all about electrical systems and circuits. Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, installing and maintaining electrical systems and components. They work across industries from infrastructure (streetlights, for example) to construction and consumer goods manufacturing.
You may also be interested in our post on the skills needed by electronics engineers.
Environmental engineering is a relatively new branch of engineering. It deals in developing environmentally friendly solutions to problems across a wide range of fields including construction, agriculture, and manufacturing.
Other more specialist branches of engineering include:
Drilling engineers, who plan and manage drilling operations for oil and gas;
Aerospace engineers, who work on aircraft or spacecraft, including both military and civilian equipment;
Telecoms or telecommunications engineers, who work on the technology to support the exchange of data and communications via telephone equipment including both landline and mobile phones.
Marine engineers, who specialise in developing boats and other systems for use in a marine environment.
Software engineers are responsible for designing, developing, building and maintaining software systems. They are also engineers, although they often study computing rather than engineering. There is more about this specialism in our page on Careers in IT and Computing.
There are therefore many branches of engineering. The branch you choose is most likely to be dictated by your interests. However, it also pays to consider the working conditions for each type of role, and the lifestyle that you want to achieve.
For example, civil engineers are likely to spend time on site and move around the world to follow their projects. For big infrastructure projects, that may mean being abroad for several months at a time. Software engineers, by contrast, may spend time at clients’ sites, but are more likely to be based in a single location. Chemical engineers are also likely to work at a single site.
Skills Needed by Engineers
There may be many branches of engineering, but engineers tend to share a core set of skills. These skills and characteristics include:
An interest in how things work, and how to improve them, and generally a very practical approach. In everyday life, engineers are often the ones fixing things that have broken, or just taking things apart to see how they work.
A degree in engineering. It is generally essential to study engineering at degree level, and possibly beyond. This also requires very strong skills in maths and physics.
Engineers also often have very good analytical skills, with the ability to think issues and problems through in a logical way.
Strong project management skills. Engineers are often required to plan and run projects, especially when they become more senior, so these skills are essential.
Creativity and innovation skills, coupled with good problem-solving skills. Engineers are very much life’s problem-solvers. They may use ‘standard’ problem-solving techniques, but may also need to think much more creatively at times to find new ways to solve problems.
Leadership and team-working skills. Engineers generally work in teams that may include people from around the world, especially on major projects. Senior engineers are often required to lead those teams. As well as team-working skills, engineers therefore also need good intercultural awareness.
Most branches of engineering also have their own professional qualification. Engineers therefore need to be prepared to commit to lifelong learning and continuing professional development, to maintain their status as a member of their profession.
When is an Engineer not an Engineer?
There are many other jobs that are titled ‘engineer’, but do not require the same level of qualifications as those described so far. This is because the word engineer is often used as a shorthand for someone who does practical, hands-on work with machines or engines.
This broad category therefore covers anyone who repairs machines, including domestic appliances and cars.
These roles may require training and possible qualifications—but they do not require a degree in engineering. They might therefore be better described as technicians.
However, those doing these jobs often require very similar skills to engineers. In particular, they need to be practical and methodical, with a strong grasp of technology. They are also likely to need good problem-solving skills, often with a touch of innovation or creativity thrown in.
A Final Thought
Engineering is a highly technical field of applied science. However, if you have the necessary numeracy and mathematical skills, and an interest in practical science, this could be the field for you. If you don’t have the numeracy skills, but have a very practical approach, technician-level ‘engineering’ roles could be a good fit.