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BLS Fast Facts: Mechanical engineers
I design a building’s interior systems, such as plumbing and security. Using computer software, I make 3-D models of the systems according to a client’s specifications, including budget and time frame.
I’m generally hired as part of a team led by the architect who designed the building concept. The team meets with the client to understand details of the job, then spends a lot of time figuring out what systems would work best and who will design each of those systems. Once we complete the models, we submit them to the client for feedback, which we then use to improve the work. We continue revising until the client approves the designs.
Contractors bid on parts of the project, such as building a specific structure. We make sure they follow our specifications and use the proper equipment, but issues always come up. A lot of the work is actually problem solving. For example, I may have to adjust the design if a room feels too hot or a contractor assembles pieces in the wrong order.
Completing the project is a long process. The design phase usually takes about a year and a half, and the construction is another 1 to 2 years. But a big project can take as long as 5 years to finish.
I majored in chemistry for undergrad before deciding it was not for me. Instead, I got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, hoping to work in the auto industry.
After college, I joined the Peace Corps and designed water systems in remote villages in Nepal. These systems weren’t high tech, and the work had nothing to do with mechanical engineering, but it was still a fantastic experience to build things with few resources.
After Peace Corps, I went back to school to get my master’s degree in civil engineering. To make grad school affordable, I needed to find a professor who would hire me as a research assistant. I found one in the mechanical engineering department, so I switched to mechanical and got my master’s in that. So really, I fell into it. My becoming a mechanical engineer was a twist of fate.
When I was in grad school, my thesis advisor introduced me to a partner in this firm. The partner was active in a professional organization, so he would often visit the campus to encourage students to join and participate. I sent him my resume when I graduated, and he offered me a job.
I passed exams for two professional certifications: Engineer in Training (EIT) and Professional Engineer (PE). The EIT signifies that you’ve been working as an engineer for a while and understand the basics. PE certification allows you to sign off on the designs of others. To take the PE exam, you need at least 4 years of experience, and you have to take continuing education to keep the certification.
The technology has grown in leaps and bounds. Everything runs more efficiently now, but there’s also a lot to learn. For example, modeling software is a relatively new thing. I’ve ended up learning more from my work experience than from school.
I’m not looking to switch careers or find another job. I work for a good company with good people and benefits. My employer is flexible, so I’ve been able to work part-time or from home when I needed time to raise my kids. In fact, I’ve worked from home the last 12 years.
The work also offers me a lot of freedom. It’s a different job every day, and I get as much responsibility as I’m willing to take.
Don’t limit your options. I attended a liberal arts school for undergrad that, at the time, had only four engineering programs available. I didn’t realize just how many different fields of engineering there are. You should look at the job market first so you’re aware of what’s available and what possibilities are open to you.
Dennis Vilorio, "Mechanical engineer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2014.